PG&E dodges 90 years in jail for fire because it’s not a person

PG&E Corp. dodged a 90-year state prison sentence for a 2018 fire that killed 84 people because it’s not a person. Instead the corporation was ordered to pay the maximum penalty under California law of $4 million.

State Judge Michael Deems said he recognized the constraints prosecutors faced under the law, but the sentence didn’t fit the enormity of the crime.

“The court’s sentencing options in this case are limited,” Deems said at a hearing Thursday, adding an individual in a similar case would likely get nine decades for the “callous disregard for the citizens of Butte county.”

Under California law, a corporation can be fined a maximum of $10,000 for each manslaughter charge. PG&E was also fined $50,000 for an unlawful fire charge. Additional state fees and the cost of prosecution boosted the penalty to $4 million.

The sentence was no surprise because it was part of an agreement under which the utility on Tuesday pleaded guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter stemming from the Camp Fire. PG&E will also report to an outside monitor who was appointed by a federal judge overseeing its criminal probation for safety violations stemming from a 2010 fatal gas-line explosion.

The sentencing came after surviving victims of the fire recounted how their family members died, and their continued suffering. Michael Ramsey, the Butte County District Attorney who prosecuted the case, told Deems the victims’ pleas for help on taped emergency call recordings were “truly scaring to the psyche and soul,” and the most disturbing he’d heard in his 40-year career.

PG&E’s interim Chief Executive Officer Bill Smith listened to the victims’ accounts Wednesday and Thursday. “We’ve heard every word,” Smith told the court. He said while no apology, plea or sentencing can undo the damage wrought by the Camp Fire, the company is “tirelessly” working to improve its safety.

“We have come before this court with humility and respect, ready to be held to account for this tragedy,” Smith said.

The case is People of the State of California v. Pacific Gas and Electric Co., 20CF01422, California Superior Court, Butte County (Oroville).

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