San Bruno blast lawsuits headed into courtroom 

PG&E and lawyers representing more than 150 people who sued the utility after the San Bruno gas pipeline explosion appear to agree on at least one thing — one judge should handle all the cases for now.

Attorneys for the utility and more than 20 law firms representing victims will meet in court this week to sort out the growing legal morass stemming from the disaster that killed eight people, injured more than 50 and destroyed 38 homes.

As of last week, at least 62 lawsuits have been filed against PG&E in connection with the Sept. 9 blast, detailing the destroyed property, injuries and other losses claimed by local residents. Five were filed in San Francisco and 57 in San Mateo County, according to court papers.

In a joint filing, attorneys for 21 law firms said they won’t contest PG&E’s request that the litigation be assigned to one judge for “pretrial purposes.” Legal experts said it’s almost certain that is what San Mateo County Superior Court Judge Mark Forcum will do at a hearing Thursday.

“It in no way restricts any of the plaintiffs’ rights,” PG&E spokesman Joe Molica said. “We will continue to work with each of the plaintiffs to resolve their concerns.”

Some coordination makes sense “so you don’t have one set of lawyers after another set of lawyers doing the same depositions, reviewing the same documents,” University of San Francisco law professor Josh Davis said.

But even if PG&E admits liability, the question of paying damages to victims will likely be handled case by case because the injuries are so varied, said UC Hastings law professor David Levine.

He predicted most plaintiffs will settle and a small number may go to trial.

“Do you want to wait years to get that money back on the chance you’re going to get more, or do you want the check tomorrow?” Levine said. “That becomes a big incentive to people who do want to get on with their lives.”

The lawsuits recount in often-vivid detail the terrifying scene many residents faced.

Patrick Yu, 62, a mailman, said he awoke from a nap to his roof collapsing above him and the feeling of overwhelming heat from the flames. He escaped his home of 20 years, but it was destroyed.

George Karkazis ran from the fireball with his twin 20-month-old daughters to find his hysterical wife, Coleen. Both parents are still receiving counseling, according to court papers.

Other plaintiffs report suffering from burn injuries, depression and nightmares.

Most of the lawsuits ask for punitive damages against PG&E, which is a harder case to prove than the physical damages, Levine said.

But Mike Danko, a San Mateo attorney who is representing plaintiffs in seven lawsuits, said he believes the utility “displayed a conscious disregard for the safety of consumers” and should pay punitive damages.

sbishop@sfexaminer.com

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Shaun Bishop

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