Responsibility & Accountability in the Wake of the Butte Fire

Article Updated: October 5, 2015

This month’s Butte fire wrought havoc on the Calaveras County, killing two and laying waste to hundreds of residences. Though there are facts still to be gathered, some information suggests that the tragic Butte fire may have been caused by Pacific Gas & Electric Company power lines in the area.  In fact, one of PG&E’s own executive employees has spoken to a suspicion within the company that PG&E power lines may have come into contact with a tree, thereby causing flames to break out. While PG&E negligence has been the cause of large fires in the past, it remains to be seen if there was any negligence on the part of the company in this case. However, through an action known as inverse condemnation, victims of this tragic fire may still be able to recover damages from the large power company.

What is Inverse Condemnation?

Under the Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article I, section 19 of the California Constitution, private property may be taken for a public purpose upon payment of just compensation to the owner of the property. Usually these provisions are relevant when the government wants to use property owned by an individual for some sort of public use. For example, if the state wants to build a new highway through your front yard, the bad news is the government will likely be able to force you to give up your yard. But the good news is the constitutions require that you are paid fair market value for your land. This is called eminent domain.

Courts have likened the loss of property due to a fire caused by government action to be functionally the same as a government taking that requires just compensation. In other words, if any government agency – city, county, state, etcetera – builds power lines and those power lines cause you to lose property in a fire, the government must compensate you.

The fundamental policy underlying this concept of is that the greater availability of electric power benefits us all, but not without some risk. It is unfair to have that risk disproportionately borne by a single member of the community when we all benefit, so there are laws that permit recovery for the individuals affected by the fire. Thus it doesn’t matter if the fire was started negligently because the purpose is not to punish wrong doing. The purpose is to spread the risk of the undertaking across all citizens who benefit from that undertaking.

Usually inverse condemnation is a claim a property owner can only make against government agencies. But not in California. California courts have interpreted this to include public utilities, such as PG&E. California courts have reasoned that the question is not whether the entity is a public agency, but whether the undertaking is for public use. In other words, since the downed power lines that caused the Butte Fire were being used to transmit power to the general public, they’re public use power lines, and PG&E is acting as a public entity.

What type of damages are covered?

The Butte Fire caused a lot of damage to private property, and the type and amount of damage varied widely. Tragically, some people lost their lives or suffered physical injury. Other people saw their homes and everything they own literally go up in smoke. Still others, while thankful their lives and homes were spared, are facing acres of charred land that will require years of care to return to the condition it was in before the fire.

You may be surprised to learn that you may have the right to seek damages for nearly every type of loss suffered, from physical injury to the loss of your favorite tree. Indeed, there can be significant damages for burned vegetation. This includes everything from marketable timber to that simple bush that decorated your backyard. The older the plant, the longer it will take to replace and the more compensation you may be entitled to.

What do I do now?

If you or a loved one has been a victim of the Butte fire, contact a skilled and experienced California attorney about compensation you may be entitled to.  Please call Potter Handy, LLP at 800-383-7027 or email Mark Potter at  We will never charge you out of pocket for our services: No Recovery = No fee.

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