By: Paul Payne
With nearly the intensity of a fast-burning wildfire, lawyers from across the country have swept into Santa Rosa in search of clients who suffered losses in the recent blazes and want to sue PG&E, seeking billions of dollars in potential damages.
Seemingly overnight, out-of-town firms have moved in and set up shop, soliciting business through newspaper and billboard ads, informational meetings at hotel ballrooms and social media.
The rush is happening as many local lawyers who lost their own homes are still digging out from the rubble or awaiting the results of official investigations to determine the cause of the fires.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Patrick Emery, a partner in the Santa Rosa firm of Abbey, Weitzenberg, Warren & Emery, where several members lost their homes. “This community has never had a disaster of this scale so we haven’t experienced it here.”
Fires that began in Napa and Sonoma counties on Oct. 8 are now the most destructive in California history. In Sonoma County alone, the fires leveled more than 5,100 homes and killed at least 23 people. Damage is estimated at more than $3 billion.
Losses were centered in Santa Rosa, where fire roared in during the dark of night, devouring whole neighborhoods including Fountaingrove, Coffey Park and Larkfield-Wikiup. The dead include elderly and disabled victims who were unable to escape the flames.
Cal Fire investigators have not yet announced what caused the fires and are examining several potential theories, including power equipment failures. PG&E has declined to speculate about the cause and said it is fully cooperating with investigators.
However, the prospect that PG&E power lines could be to blame has drawn lawyers from coast to coast in pursuit of the deep-pocketed defendant. They’re running marketing campaigns, renting office space and even houses with plans to stay through litigation that could stretch out for years.
Austin, Texas, lawyer Mikal Watts and his brother, attorney Guy Watts, flew in to Santa Rosa about 10 days after the fires started when they heard speculation about PG&E’s possible tie to the blazes.
They signed a two-year lease on a Stony Point Road office next door to Emery’s firm, bought Pontiac Vibe cars for their staff of about 12 people and rented a house in southwest Santa Rosa.
“This will be the litigation hub,” Watts said Friday as he paced the floor of the former Redwood Credit Union Office now bearing the sign of his firm, Watts Guerra. “It will turn into the war room.”
He and associates from Oakland and Santa Rosa filed the first wrongful death claim against PG&E last week.
Tamara Latrice Thomas, a 47-year-old paraplegic, was killed when fire destroyed her assisted living center near Coffey Park.
“I lost my sister to something that wasn’t supposed to happen,” her brother, Torrey Thomas of San Francisco, said at a press conference Friday on the Sonoma County courthouse steps.
Dozens of other lawyers are streaming into town, buying up TV ads featuring video of Santa Rosa’s hills ablaze and staging workshops where they discuss everything from insurance claims to lawsuits.
David Fox, a San Diego lawyer specializing in wildfire litigation, said he’s drawn up to 40 people at town hall meetings in Napa and Sonoma counties.
He said there are good local attorneys, but his experience in disasters — including the 2015 Butte fire in which PG&E was found liable for millions of dollars in damages — makes him better suited to go up against the utility’s formidable legal team.
“I get that it could be a little bit overwhelming to see,” Fox said. “At the same time, it’s good for folks to know the only way we get paid is if we recover something from PG&E.”
Still, many locals are involved. Some are merely a public face, signing clients and handing them off to larger outside firms, presumably for substantial referral fees.
Others are getting more directly involved. Santa Rosa attorney Roy Miller is on the trial team with the Watts Guerra firm. He said he called them after his Larkfield home was destroyed in the Tubbs fire.
Miller said in order to take on a big corporation like PG&E it is necessary to join forces with larger law groups with more resources.
“There is no firm in Sonoma County with the financial wherewithal to pursue litigation against PG&E,” Miller said.
Emery’s firm also is taking fire clients, holding informational meetings and teaming up with a group of other firms. But he said it is premature to sue.
“At this point nobody knows exactly what happened,” Emery said. “Our approach is to make sure we know where we’re going before we head down that road.”