In an unprecedented case of a corporation being held accountable, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) has confessed to killing 84 people in a devastating wildfire that wiped out the Northern California town of Paradise in November 2018.
PG&E Chief Executive Officer Bill Johnson entered individual guilty pleas on Tuesday on behalf of the company for 84 felony counts of involuntary manslaughter stemming from the fire, which was blamed on the company’s crumbling electrical grid. It was the deadliest corporate crime in United States history.
“Our equipment started that fire,” said Johnson, who apologised directly to the victims’ families. “PG&E will never forget the Camp Fire and all that it took away from the region.”
Although the admission was part of a plea deal, it came during a dramatic court hearing designed to publicly shame the nation’s largest utility for neglecting its infrastructure.
The name of each victim was read aloud in a courtroom before Butte County Superior Court Judge Michael Deems while the images of the dead were shown on a large screen.
PG&E also pleaded guilty to one felony count of unlawfully starting a fire.
Later on Tuesday, Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey is expected to release a long-awaited report detailing the corporate misconduct that ignited the November 2018 wildfire that destroyed Paradise, California, located about 275km (170 miles) northeast of San Francisco.
In this case, PG&E has agreed to pay a maximum fine of $3.5m for its crimes in addition to $500,000 for the cost of the investigation. The amount is relatively low, because California law limits the penalty for each manslaughter.
The San Francisco company will not be placed on criminal probation, unlike what happened after its natural gas lines blew up a neighbourhood in San Bruno, California, killing eight people in 2010. That tragedy resulted in a criminal conviction that put San Francisco on a five-year probation that ends in January 2022.
With no prospect of jail time for a corporation, Ramsey tried to use Tuesday’s hearing to force PG&E to confront the death and destruction stemming from its corporate culture of placing a greater priority on profits for its shareholders than protecting the safety of the 16 million Northern Californians who rely on the utility for power.
“We want this to be impactful because this can’t go on any longer,” Butte County District Attorney Ramsey told The Associated Press news agency. “There is going to have to be a sea change in PG&E’s method of operation.”
PG&E is hoping to emerge from its nearly year-and-half-long bankruptcy. The company has agreed to pay $25.5bn for losses from the 2018 fire and other blazes in 2017 blamed on its crumbling equipment.
The California Public Utilities Commission fined it a further $1.9bn.
The company says it has already made changes that will create a more reliable and safer electrical grid, although it still expects to rely on deliberate power outages during the next few years to minimise the risks of causing more fires.
As part of a deal with California power regulators, PG&E will replace 11 of its 14 board members. CEO Johnson will step down on June 30.
Despite PG&E’s pledge, critics fear more danger looms during an upcoming wildfire season after an unusually dry winter in Northern California.
Tuesday’s hearing served as the first phase of Butte County’s retribution against PG&E.
The judge has set aside time for survivors and those who lost loved ones and homes in the fire to address the court on Wednesday and perhaps beyond.
The company will be sentenced on Thursday or Friday, but it will likely be just a formality, as the utility had already agreed to plea terms.