Dixie Fire Updates: Who Started It, Litigation Status

This video features Alicia D. O’Neill, a Personal Injury attorney based in Texas.

California Wildfire Attorney Alicia O’Neill

Video Transcript:

Alicia O'Neill: 

Reach out to an attorney, someone who enjoys a good reputation, somebody who's worked in a lot of wildfires before and been successful in the litigation of wildfire claims and talk to them.

Rob Rosenthal: 

Maybe you've heard a lot of differing opinions about the Dixie Fire or wildfire in California and the effort to recover damages for victims of the fire, but where does the truth lie? Well, that's what we're gonna find out right now because that's what we're going to ask the lawyer on this episode. Hi, again, everybody, I'm Rob Rosenthal with askthelawyers.com. My guest is attorney Alicia O'Neill with the law firm of Watts Guerra, which has already started filing lawsuits against specific gas and electric to recover money for people who lost property in the huge Dixie Fire. And right off the top, I wanna let you know if you wanna get in contact with Alicia or any of her tea, the best way to do that is call the number that will be on the screen when we talk to Alicia, and it doesn't cost you anything to talk to somebody. Alicia, thank you for making some time to answer our questions.

Alicia O'Neill: 

Hi, Rob, thank you for having me.

Rob Rosenthal: 

So the good news is the Dixie Fire is 100% contained. The bad news is it burned a lot of acreage and destroyed a lot of properties. Where do things stand right now with the Dixie Fire?

Alicia O'Neill: 

You know, Rob, I completely agree. It's a blessing that on October the 25th, the amazing firefighters in California, were able to get the Dixie Fire completely contained. Unfortunately, it had already burned almost a million acres of land and 1300 structures.

Rob Rosenthal: 

Wow.

Alicia O'Neill: 

I think that there was also a loss of life of a firefighter, it's a very tragic and huge wildfire.

Rob Rosenthal: 

And your law firm Watts Guerra is participating, is attempting to recover damages for victims of the fire. Where does the litigation stand right now? Well, take us through that a little bit.

Alicia O'Neill: 

So the litigation is in the beginning stages of organization, just like with all of the other fires that unfortunately have happened 2017, 2018, 2019, all of those fires also followed a similar track, where you can file all your cases, they are consolidated in a single Court in San Francisco, usually, and the cases are then handled all together.

Rob Rosenthal: 

And it's not surprising that there's a lot of conjecture online about the causes of the fire, even less surprising that a lot of it is completely inaccurate, so I thought it would be helpful to let you walk us through some of that and help us get to the truth on a lot of this. So let's just go through some of these. Some people are saying it's the state of California or the federal government's responsibility. We've heard they should have cleared the forest or raked the forest as we've heard, and therefore that's their responsibility. What do you say to that Alicia?

Alicia O'Neill: 

Without having to weigh into whether or not it's important to rake a forest or for the state of California to do more or less in this case, it's just isn't relevant. A PG&E lineman called in, the fact that a tree was leaning up against a power line in this case, PG&E knew that there was a problem, they knew where the fire started, they knew that they should have gone and maintained and moved that tree away from the line, and they didn't do it.

Rob Rosenthal: 

Well, that sort of leads me to the next thing is some people are saying, "Oh, it was started by a professor from the University of California, or maybe a homeless man or an arsonist." Do we know that it was because of PG&E?

Alicia O'Neill: 

I think that what you can do is follow the evidence, and that's certainly what CAL FIRE will do, and they'll come out with a report and say definitively that, I believe, that PG&E was the start of this fire, and it'll be based on the evidence that we've been speaking about today. The fact that a lineman saw this tree up against this power line, the fact that contemporaneously, we knew where the fire started and that it was due to the poor maintenance on behalf of PG&E.

Rob Rosenthal: 

And the evidence is much more compelling than just somebody making up some conjecture.

Alicia O'Neill: 

It is. I think that it's a good thing about having cell phones now and the ability to stay in constant contact, a lot of times, defendants like PG&E put themselves in a bad place by communicating with each other but not acting appropriately.

Rob Rosenthal: 

Also, I'm seeing Alicia, somebody's saying it's because of special interest groups, like say the Sierra Club, that they tie the State of California's hands when it comes to maintaining the forest. What's your thought on that?

Alicia O'Neill: 

It's PG&E's responsibility under state law to clear lines and to keep brash and trees a certain distance away from their lines. They have to by law do that. There isn't anyone stopping them. In fact, the entire state is compelling them to do so. They get fined for not doing it, they end up having criminal cases filed against them for not doing it when they cause fires because of it. Every single thing about that law compels them to do it and nothing stops them from doing it.

Rob Rosenthal: 

What about the home owners, the people that have lost their properties, some will say, "Well, they should just have fire insurance and then they should recover from their insurance company." What about that argument?

Alicia O'Neill: 

I would say two things to that. First, I think that it's reasonable to think that insurance should cover all of your losses in a fire. Insurance is for accidental fires, it's for when there is no bad guy who burned your house down, that's why we all buy insurance, we're thinking about a lighting strike or something like that. We're not thinking about somebody, somebody is in some C-suite somewhere who decides they're not gonna properly maintain their lines and burn your house to the ground and all of your neighbors houses to the ground. When you think about insurance, we have to make a bunch of speculative guesses. What our house is worth, what our property inside of our home is worth, and what you'll find is that when you lose everything and you go back to try to value your personal property, your antiques, your jewelry, your home itself, that most of the time, it's been grossly undervalued by insurance, and you can't rebuild it for the price that you had insured it for, and you can't replace all of your personal property for the insurance amount that you get for that. So when you have this huge delta between what insurance pays you and what a company like PG&E, the damage they've done, it's only their responsibility, it's only right that they pay for that difference.

Rob Rosenthal: 

That makes perfect sense. You mentioned earlier that unfortunately, this is not the first wildfire in California where there's been cases. Some people are saying, "Well, there's still people from those earlier wildfires that haven't received compensation. Address that a little bit about why it takes so long to receive compensation and maybe why some people, or victims of wildfires are able to sue and others aren't. Touch on that a little bit.

Alicia O'Neill: 

Sure, I think that a lot of times people are thinking about the 2017 and 2018 wildfires, where PG&E went through a bankruptcy through Chapter 11, and then the bankruptcy court is administering the trust, that's 70,000 people who have filed claims in a bankruptcy trust and are being paid out. They've made payments to about one-third of the people who have filed claims with the fire victim trust, and they will continue to do that until they've paid 100% of them. For the folks who were back from 2017, obviously that's been a little wait for them, and a lot of it was litigation through a bankruptcy court. For the folks in 2018, they're being paid at the same time. We are actively working up our cases from 2019 and 2020, and obviously we'll do the same for the Dixie Fire in 2021 to in the same way that we learned to work up cases in 2017 and present them to PG&E and push for a settlement.

Rob Rosenthal: 

So ultimately, Alicia, what's your advice for victims who have suffered losses because of the Dixie Fire?

Alicia O'Neill: 

My advice for victims who have suffered any kind of a loss because of the Dixie Fire would be to reach out to an attorney, someone who enjoys a good reputation, somebody who's worked in a lot of wildfires before and been successful in the litigation of wildfire claims. And talk to them, let them know your concerns, ask them every single question you wanna ask them. If you come to us and you ask us all the questions we've been discussing today and a 100 more, we're gonna be able to explain it to you in a way that will make sense and in a way that will allow you to truly weigh your options. Certainly, my clients from 2017, who have been waiting to be paid and are getting paid now, and from 2018, too, they had the same questions and concerns as you do when they started out. And I can promise you that they are very happy that they filed their claims because now they're able to actually rebuild their homes and their lives with the money they needed to do that.

Rob Rosenthal: 

Lots of really helpful information, thank you for clearing up some of the misconceptions for us, thank you for the work that you and your team are doing and for making some time to answer our questions today, Alicia, I appreciate it.

Alicia O'Neill: 

Absolutely, thank you, Rob.

Rob Rosenthal: 

That's gonna do it for this episode of Ask the Lawyer. My guest has been attorney Alicia O'Neill with Watts Guerra law firm. Remember, if you wanna talk to Alicia, or a member of her team, you just call the phone number on the screen, 707-260-1999, and they can walk you through the process, and it doesn't cost you anything to talk to someone. Thanks for watching. I'm Rob Rosenthal with Ask the Lawyers.

This is a paid advertisement funded by the law firm of Watts Guerra LLC. The purpose is to reach prospective clients with respect to the matters described. Doug Boxer of The Law Office of Douglas Boxer is licensed to practice law in California. Attorneys identified, other than Doug Boxer, are licensed to practice law in the State of Texas. Mikal Watts is Board Certified in Personal Injury Law. Unless otherwise indicated, the attorneys listed are not board certified. This does not constitute a guarantee, warranty, or prediction regarding the outcome of your potential legal matter and does not constitute an attorney-client privilege or relationship. The principal offices of Watts Guerra LLC are located in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico. The principal office of the Law Office of Douglas Boxer is at 2561 California Park Drive, Suite 100, Chico, CA 95928. Doug Boxer, of The Law Office of Douglas Boxer, and Mikal Watts, of Watts Guerra LLC, are the attorneys responsible for the content of this advertisement.


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