Lawyers for more than half the wildfire victims who negotiated a $13.5 billion settlement with PG&E Corp. say their clients plan to vote overwhelmingly in favor of the bankrupt utility’s reorganization plan.
The attorneys represent about 40,300 of the estimated 70,000 who lost homes, businesses and other property in blazes blamed on PG&E equipment. Members of the largest group, represented by the firm Watts Guerra LLP, have voted nearly unanimously in favor of the deal, with more than half of 18,000 total votes already cast, according to people familiar with the matter.
The vast majority of the second largest group, represented by the Singleton Law Firm, also solidly back the plan, although most haven’t voted yet, a senior partner said.
“So far, the response has been overwhelming,” said the partner, Gerald Singleton, whose firm represents roughly 7,000 victims.
The preliminary tallies come as attorneys for a committee representing fire victims in the bankruptcy have asked a federal judge to modify the settlement because half of the payout will be funded with stock that’s been battered by the coronavirus fallout. PG&E’s Chapter 11 plan must win support from two thirds of wildfire victims who cast a ballot. Voting began this week and concludes May 15.
PG&E said it remains on track to have its plan approved by the bankruptcy court by June 30. “Since PG&E entered Chapter 11, the company has had one goal, and that is to get victims paid fairly and timely,” the company said in a statement. PG&E shares fell 4.2% Friday.
Despite optimism among some lawyers, there are signs of dissension. At least three fire victims have resigned in protest from the 11-member committee appointed to represent those who lost homes and loved ones. One of them, Kirk Trostle, whose home burned in the 2018 Camp Fire, said he was stepping down so he could speak out against the settlement, calling it “flawed.”
As voting continues, lawyers who still back the deal are clashing with those who don’t, hosting competing conference calls and virtual town-hall meetings to win victims to their side. Earlier this week, the activist Erin Brockovich, who has worked with one of the firms Watts Guerra partnered with, wrote an op-ed for the San Francisco Chronicle urging victims to accept the deal, saying it’s one of the largest settlements in history and that there’s no other deal on the table.
Richard Bridgford, founding partner of Bridgford, Gleason & Artinian, represents 4,300 of the victims and said he believes his clients will vote overwhelmingly for the plan.
Jim Frantz, an attorney with the Frantz Law Group, represents 5,000 victims and said almost all his clients support the deal. Many have been living in trailers since their homes were burned and want to get on with their lives, he said.
“It’s not a perfect solution,” Frantz said. “But this is as perfect as it will get at this time.”
Mike Danko, an attorney with Corey Danko Gibbs, said most of the 6,000 victims he represents support the plan too. There are no other alternatives on the table, which is why he is recommending they back it.
A representative for the Watts group declined to comment.
Singleton said he’s recommending his clients support the plan because he believes it will allow them to be paid out in six to 12 months. If it’s rejected, it could take three to five years, he said. He said a “small but vocal” minority of victims oppose the plan in hopes of a better deal.
“None of the alternatives are close to what this is offering,” Singleton said. “There is no reason to believe that they would get more money if they rejected the deal.”
–With assistance from Mark Chediak, Steven Church and David R. Baker.
About the photo: A statue stands outside a burn-out building during the Camp Fire in Paradise, California on Nov. 13, 2018.
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