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Inverse Condemnation and California Wildfires


PG&E to Blame for Wildfires?

Did electrical lines knocked down by a windstorm play a part in starting what has become the most lethal wildfire event in California’s history?  The wildfires in Northern California counties of Butte, Lake, Mendocino, Napa, Sonoma, Santa Rosa, and Solano have caused significant damage. Cal Fire continues to investigate. There is some evidence PG&E owned and maintained equipment may have failed, starting the blaze.

This would not be the first time PG&E faced allegations of negligence in fires. It has previously been found guilty of negligence in the 2015 Butte Fire in Amador County, California. That fire destroyed over 500 homes.

Does PG&E Owe You Anything?

There are some bedrock principles of law that may impact homeowners who have lost their homes, or substantial use of their homes, due to the fires. First, the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution states, in relevant part, nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation. Next, the California Constitution, in Article 1 Section 19, states Private property may be taken or damaged for a public use and only when just compensation, has first been paid to the owner.

When There Is a Taking

Most common, the California and United States constitutional prohibitions on the government taking property is dealt with under eminent domain. When the government takes land, for example, to expand a freeway they are required to compensate the owner for the taking. In such cases, the government sues the landowner for rights to the property.

However, sometimes the government taking is so great, the entire property is rendered useless. Imagine a property owner owns a store that takes up 50% of the property and a parking lot that takes up the other 50 percent of the property. Whether the government takes the part of the land that is the store or the part that is the parking lot, the business fails.  In such a case, reverse condemnation comes in to play. Similar to eminent domain, the government takes the property. However, in reverse condemnation, the property owner becomes the plaintiff. They must affirmatively sue in order to obtain what they are entitled to compensation for the loss of their property.

Accidental Property Damage and Liability cailiforniawildfiresattorney

Privately owned utility companies can also be subject to strict liability for inverse condemnation. There are three different situations wherein inverse condemnation comes into play. As it relates to the recent wildfires, where a utility company’s actions cause accidental property damage, such as a wildfire, landslide, or flooding, the property owner may have an actionable claim.

What Can Be Recovered?

In California, any damage to real property which was caused by the utility company can be recovered under a theory of inverse condemnation. These damages include:

  • The loss of a home
  • The loss of outbuildings
  • Attorneys’ fees
  • Prejudgment interest

If Your Home Was Damaged by Fire

If you are one of the over 5700 property owners affected by the North Bay Fires, Thomas Fire, or other California wildfire, you may be entitled to damages. However, to recover, you must file suit. The attorneys at Nadrich & Cohen have extensive experience handling inverse condemnation claims. We can help you determine the extent of the loss and take the appropriate steps to make you whole. There is no fee, as a successful inverse condemnation claim covers the cost of attorneys’ fees.

Contact us today to discuss the facts and circumstances of your particular case.