Edison to Face First Trial Over Woolsey Wildfire Claim in April

By Erik Larson | August 16, 2019

The first trial to determine if Edison International’s Southern California utility is liable for damages from the Woolsey wildfire that tore through Malibu last year will begin on April 27, a judge said.

California Superior Court Judge William Highberger set the trial date at a hearing Thursday in Los Angeles. Edison’s attorneys said they’d seek to have the suit thrown out before then, based on their argument that state law is wrongfully being used to hold the company liable regardless of fault.

The high-stakes proceeding in April will be the first of several so-called bellwether trials in which plaintiffs are representative of individuals or entities with similar claims, such as owners of homes or agricultural properties.

There are billions of dollars at stake for Edison, as the fire destroyed hundreds of homes in southern California, including those of celebrities Miley Cyrus, Gerard Butler and Robin Thicke. The blaze also destroyed the Paramount Ranch, where shows like HBO’s “Westworld” were filmed.

The judge put off arguments on Edison’s claim about state law being improperly used against it. He said the parties would revisit the issue in November after the U.S. Supreme Court has a chance to decide whether to hear an appeal in a similar case.

Bellwether trials, common in product liability litigation, assist parties in deciding whether they should keep fighting or settle, depending on the outcomes.

The plaintiffs are being split into separate categories for homeowner property losses, tenant property loss, agricultural loss and smoke and ash damage. The first trial will consist of plaintiffs from the homeowner property loss and agricultural loss categories.

Highberger told one plaintiffs’ lawyer to set aside his concern that some alleged victims might be frozen out of the bellwether process.

“Like a good coach, I’ll be looking for walk-ons,” the judge said.

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