Lawyers discuss how San Bruno suits will proceed

A massive fire is roars through a mostly residential neighborhood in San Bruno, Calif., Thursday, Sept. 9, 2010.
September 1, 2011 6:14:03 PM PDT
More than a dozen lawyers met with a judge in a Redwood City courtroom to try to iron out how and when they will resolve almost 100 lawsuits triggered by the deadly San Bruno pipeline explosion.

PG&E wants consolidations and mediation. The attorneys want a public trial. Just about the only thing everyone can agree on is that they want whatever happens to begin as soon as possible.

"We do not want piecemeal litigation with confidential settlements behind a steel curtain of secrecy, where nobody knows what happened and why," attorney Frank Pitre said.

Pitre represents more than 80 San Bruno residents and others affected by the natural gas pipeline explosion which killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes in September 2010.

Pitre and more than a dozen plaintiff lawyers want what is called a "bellwether" trial.

"You take four cases, you try them at once, you get everything resolved in those four cases, including liability, compensatory damages and punitive damages," attorney Jerry Nastari explained.

Nastari has 127 clients.

A jury then renders a verdict which will set a benchmark for all of the other pending cases.

"They'll be able to have a formula which they can sit down with their lawyers to resolve their cases," Pitre said.

The lawyers also know that juries often award punitive damages in high profile cases that can be in the tens to hundreds of millions of dollars.

What the lawyers do not want is what PG&E does want -- mediation to settle the lawsuits. PG&E says consolidation and mediation will be a fair way to resolve the lawsuits in a timely manner.

Attorney Steve Campora represented the family of a burn victim who died on Christmas Eve 2008 when a PG&E gas pipeline exploded in Rancho Cordova. He eventually settled through mediation but he says he will not do that again.

"We have mediations and settlements that are in secrecy and the facts that occurred never see the light of day; I think that's something that needs to stop," Campora said.

The lawyers are determined to have a public trial where they can air what they call PG&E's "dirty laundry."

Pitre says the National Transportation Safety Board's damning report issued this week blaming PG&E for the blast will help.

"It's a pretty good roadmap on where the bodies are buried, but it didn't go deep enough because it didn't add the corporate culture issue," Pitre said.

The hearing will continue Sept. 22. At that time the judge is expected to set a trial date and determine what course of action to follow.


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