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Fire Victims Ask Judge to Reconsider $13.5 Billion PG&E Settlement

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PG&E crews work to restore utility services in Paradise on Feb. 1, 2019. The utility, which filed for bankruptcy last year, faces billions of dollars in potential liabilities over its role in a series of deadly wildfires. (Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images)

Nearly two dozen California wildfire victims are asking a federal judge to reconsider a $13.5 billion settlement that lawyers for the official bankruptcy committee for survivors brokered with PG&E in December as part of the utility's exit from Chapter 11.

The court in San Francisco on Wednesday posted a batch of letters sent to U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Dennis Montali from 22 victims of wildfires, including the Camp Fire, which Cal Fire determined was sparked by PG&E equipment.

"Please hold PG&E Fully Accountable! The current amount set aside isn't enough!" wrote Camp Fire survivor Tina Reszler, who lost her home and her dog, Talula, in the 2018 blaze.

The Official Committee of Tort Claimants, or TCC, is made up of 11 survivors who represent the tens of thousands of victims of recent fires caused or suspected to have been caused by PG&E. The committee's lawyers reached the multibillion dollar agreement with the utility in December, nearly a year after PG&E filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, citing wildfire-related liabilities.

While TCC lawyers have handled negotiations on behalf of the vast majority of victims, letters to Montali have been one of the few direct forms of communication between individual survivors and the court. And this most recent batch, posted to the court docket, paints a portrait of frustration and emotional anguish.

"We know how bad this settlement is for survivors. It is my sincerest hope that the majority of claimants vote this down," wrote Camp Fire survivor Lisa Williams. "Survivors have taken a backseat to all the rich investors that have had an eye on making a profit at our expense."

Several survivors specifically noted their concern that half of the settlement will come in the form of PG&E stock.

"Further disconcerting is the expectation that fire victims accept potentially volatile, unreliable and delayed funding in the form of restructured PG&E stock and tax benefits, while the same financing has been ardently refused by experienced hedge fund managers," wrote James Finn of Santa Rosa, who lost his home in the Tubbs Fire.

PG&E reached a separate $11 billion all-cash deal with insurance claim holders in September.

The current draft summary being prepared for survivors to review, ahead of a vote this spring, states that "no fire victims will receive stock of reorganized PG&E Corp directly." However, shares of PG&E are slated to go into a trust that will be set up to pay their claims. That means the payments they receive would be tied, in part, to PG&E's share performance after bankruptcy.

Several survivors also asked Montali to institute a cap on fees they will have to pay to personal injury lawyers representing them.

In addition to their grievances, the letters include personal accounts of harrowing escapes and loss. Many make clear that their troubles are far from over.


"I don't think people understand what impact PG&E did to us!!!" wrote Camp Fire survivor Cheryl Maynard. She noted the stress in her life following the blaze has led to several visits to hospital emergency rooms, and was recently told she needs surgery for a condition called tachycardia, in which the heart beats faster than normal.

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Although victims seldom appear in Montali's courtroom, Tubbs Fire survivor Will Abrams on Tuesday argued a formal motion asking the judge to reconsider the cash-stock settlement with PG&E.

Montali overruled Abrams' motion, citing the complexities of the agreement that PG&E reached with the committee representing survivors.

"You’re assuming that 70,000 of your fellow survivors would want to even attempt to understand it," Montali told Abrams in court Tuesday. "You are very thorough and you’re reading carefully and asking questions. I suspect that large numbers of [survivors] don’t want to do that."

"I respect your views but I can’t let your desires jeopardize what is a very, very complex process," Montali added.

Steven Skikos, a lawyer representing a member of the survivors' committee, said in court Tuesday that now the onus is on PG&E to show victims and their attorneys why the plan is the best option for them.

"Platitudes aren’t going to work. What we have to do is provide facts and evidence as to why this plan is going to work," Skikos said. "What we have to do is to get rid of the decades of blind greed that have comprised this company."

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