A Los Angeles County judge has set a trial date for the first of the Thomas Fire lawsuits against Southern California Edison.
Santa Barbara attorney Joseph Liebman, a member of a multi-firm legal team representing more than 600 plaintiffs damaged by the Thomas Fire and Montecito debris flow, said trial was set on Monday for April 6, 2020.
Judge Daniel Buckley has been keeping a close eye on the case by ordering status updates every two to three weeks.
“SCE strongly objected and argued that the first trial should not occur until November of 2020,” said Mr. Liebman in an email to the News-Press.
“The judge was persuaded to set an earlier trial date, in part due to the fact that the (Alternate Living Expense) for most homeowners will expire on the two year anniversary of the fire,” said Mr. Liebman.
Alternate living expense refers to a provision in homeowners insurance that covers rent costs for people whose homes are destroyed or become uninhabitable. Mr. Liebman said those funds will likely run out before victims can finish rebuilding.
“As we know, it takes longer than two years to rebuild a house and the 600 plus clients I represent have millions in damages. Add in the County and insurance lawsuits and Edison is looking at billions in damages,” said Mr. Liebman.
The first trial, he said, will use the “bellwether” trial method in which one to two plaintiffs from various categories of damage, such as “a complete burn-down of a home, an avocado farm, a smoke and soot only case, etc,” will participate, said Mr. Liebman.
The Montecito debris flow cases will be also tried with the bellwether method.
He added that the trial date will likely put pressure on Edison to seriously consider how it intends to either resolve the cases or bring them to trial.
“Once a verdict is reached, the hope is that it will lead to the settlement of all of the remaining cases because the parties will know how a typical jury will decide the remaining claims,” said Mr. Liebman.
“Instead of taking all these cases to trial, Edison may be willing to settle for slightly less than full value.”
The next status conference will be held at the end of the month. An Edison spokesman could not be reached for comment.
The Thomas Fire started on the evening of Dec. 4, 2017 and burned a total of 281,893 acres in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, destroying 1,063 structures and causing two deaths, before it was fully controlled on Jan. 10, 2018.
During a heavy storm on Jan. 9, 2018, the Montecito debris flow destroyed more than 100 homes and killed 23 people. The debris flow resulted from ground denuded of vegetation by the Thomas Fire.
The plaintiffs filed their first complaint Edison for negligence and inverse condemnation damages on Jan. 16, 2019.