San Bruno blast victims struggle to deal with PG&E fund 

Victims of the natural-gas pipeline blast were promised money from PG&E to help put their lives back together.

The money, however, has come with giant hurdles — lawyers and complicated paperwork.

On Sept. 9, a pipeline owned by PG&E exploded. The blast and subsequent massive fire killed eight people and damaged or destroyed 55 homes.

Just days later, PG&E President Peter Darbee announced the creation of the $100 million Rebuild San Bruno fund, promising there would be no strings attached.

An attorney representing some of the hundreds of victims who have sued the utility company in the wake of the Sept. 9 explosion said it has been increasingly difficult for his clients to obtain money from the PG&E fund.

While the utility handed out “no strings attached” checks of up to $50,000 immediately after the disaster, residents now must submit claims to PG&E. 

Mike Danko, who has filed lawsuits on behalf of seven San Bruno families, said some of his clients are still recovering emotionally and feel overwhelmed dealing with complicated claims for things such as cracked chimneys or car repairs as part of PG&E’s process.

“It’s just paperwork, but it’s so complicated and so difficult,” Danko said.

PG&E said it has given out about $17.5 million of the fund, which was set up to reimburse residents for costs that may not be covered by insurance and help the city cover the cost of the emergency response and rebuilding. That includes $7.7 million in immediate relief checks and $9 million for claims, PG&E spokeswoman Nicole Liebelt said.

A potential slowdown in distributing the funds occurs when a lawsuit is filed.

Once a person initiates a legal claim, PG&E “must first seek the consent of legal counsel as required by law before we can continue communicating with those residents,” Liebelt said. She said not all attorneys have given that permission.

The utility is responding to claims as fast as possible and is trying to do “everything we can to help those residents who have been affected by this tragedy,” Liebelt said.

Danko said he reminds his clients that PG&E is not obligated to pay them anything unless they obtain a court judgment. However, he said the utility could require less paperwork for smaller claims such as broken windows.

Bill Magoolaghan, whose family filed a lawsuit and is represented by Cotchett Pitre and McCarthy, said he has not received any money from PG&E since an initial $50,000 check in September.

Finally, four months after the incident, PG&E and Magoolaghan’s attorney communicated. Now, still lacking further funding, Magoolaghan — whose home had to be gutted after the fire — can receive paperwork about how to take part in the company’s rebuilding program.

“I think PG&E is really trying to do the right thing in terms of getting us help to rebuild our homes,” Magoolaghan said. “So I just need to find out more details about whether we qualify for [the rebuilding program] and what it means.”

Settling the dust

San Bruno residents are still working to rebuild their lives after the Sept. 9 gas explosion.

38 Homes destroyed
17 Homes with moderate damage
45 Homes with minor damage
$100 million Size of PG&E’s Rebuild San Bruno fund
48 Lawsuits filed in San Mateo County Superior Court against PG&E related to explosion as of Jan. 6

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Shaun Bishop

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