Judge Steven Dylina said that the group of 95 cases representing more than 300 plaintiffs should be ready to go to trial on July 2, 2012.
In his ruling, Dylina said the victims of the Sept. 9, 2010 explosion, which killed eight people and injured dozens more, were forefront in his mind as he sought to maneuver the "very complex" group of cases through the court system toward a trial next year.
"I realize the gravity of the importance of this case for the people of San Bruno," Dylina said.
In a draft report on the disaster issued last month by the National Transportation Safety Board, investigators found that PG&E installed a flawed section of pipe in the Crestmoor Canyon neighborhood in 1956, and that the utility's lax record keeping and inspections practices failed to detect the problem until the line exploded last year.
Dylina presented a roadmap for how the dozens of lawsuits filed against PG&E in the wake of the disaster could be heard most efficiently as a group while addressing the particular needs of each individual claim.
Dylina suggested that lawyers for PG&E and the plaintiffs divide the claims into eight different categories: wrongful death; serious bodily injury requiring treatment or hospitalization; minor bodily injuries and property loss; minor bodily injuries with no property loss; those who were present at the time of the explosion and lost property; those who were present at the time of the explosion and did not lose property; those who were not present at the time of the explosion and lost property; and those who were not present at the time of the explosion and lost little or no property.
Dylina asked attorneys for the defense and the plaintiffs to select one lawsuit they believed would best represent all the other cases in each of the eight categories.
The 16 "representative sample" cases would then be tried simultaneously when the trial starts next July.
Dylina acknowledged that some cases might fit into one or more categories, and assured attorneys for both sides that the suggested representative sample system was a preliminary framework for moving the cases toward a trial as quickly as possible.
Burlingame attorney Frank Pitre, who represents all the attorneys for the victims suing PG&E, applauded Dylina on his efforts to establish a fair, expeditious and transparent method to get the lawsuits to trial.
"I'm extremely pleased," Pitre said. "It's a credit to this judge that the trial will start before the two-year anniversary. It's like a rocket ship."
Pitre had argued against the suggestion of PG&E's attorneys to hear and settle the lawsuits in a private mediation process, saying that the utility needed to answer for its responsibility in the disaster in the full transparency of the courtroom.
"It's a day of reckoning for PG&E," Pitre said. "On July 2, we're going to see what PG&E has to say."
Gayle Gough, lead counsel for PG&E, said she was happy with the proposed system of selecting representative cases, and that the goal of the utility has always been to work towards compensating the victims as soon as possible.
"PG&E absolutely wants to bring compensation to the citizens and residents of San Bruno," Gough said.