PG&E Says Wildfire Victims Back Settlement in Bankruptcy

The deal requires the power company to begin compensating, as early as August, those who lost homes, businesses and other property. About 70,000 wildfire victims filed claims. For the deal to win approval, at least two-thirds of those voting had to support it.

Some victims and their lawyers had waged a campaign against the deal in recent weeks, arguing that it did not guarantee that victims would receive all of the money that they were promised. PG&E has agreed to pay half of the $13.5 billion in cash and the other half in the company’s stock, which has fluctuated wildly, especially since the coronavirus spread widely.

Critics wanted an all-cash settlement, something PG&E has agreed to in a separate deal with a group of investors and businesses that own insurance claims against the utility. The company will pay that group $11 billion.

The contentious voting process, which began in March and ended Friday, pitted groups of victims and lawyers against one another, with some raising questions about potential conflicts of interest involving a lawyer who represents 16,000 wildfire victims. The lawyer, Mikal Watts, has a $100 million line of credit that was funded in part by funds that had invested in PG&E’s stock and bonds. Mr. Watts supported the agreement.

But the contingent of victims campaigning for a “No” vote failed to gain traction. Many victims were uninterested in extending negotiations with PG&E because they have spent months or years living in temporary quarters and have grown weary of waiting for compensation.

Mr. Watts said homeowners could now rest assured that they would be compensated for their losses and that PG&E would come out of bankruptcy a better company. “I think collectively we can take an old troubled bad company and convert it to a new utility that can safely deliver electricity to the citizens of Northern California,” Mr. Watts said.

But Bonnie Kane, a San Diego lawyer who along with her husband, Steven, represents some wildfire victims who opposed the agreement, said that some victims did not receive ballots in time to cast a vote and that others received them with little time to spare.

“This was horrendous,” Ms. Kane said. “The whole voting process was extremely tainted.”

PG&E still has to gain approval for its bankruptcy plan from the California Public Utilities Commission, which is scheduled to vote Thursday on the plan. The commission this month imposed a record penalty of almost $2 billion against the utility for the wildfires it caused.

With the 2020 wildfire season drawing near, some government officials and wildfire victims fear PG&E is ill prepared to prevent more fires.

Last year, PG&E avoided setting off the kinds of deadly wildfires it has become known for by cutting power to millions of people for as long as a week during dry and windy conditions. The strategy, called public safety power shut-offs, angered residents and state officials who have pressed the utility to limit its use of that strategy.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said last week that there could be more fierce wildfires this season than in 2019 because of a lack of snow and rain.

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