Boeing, SoCal Edison Blamed In Suit For Role In Woolsey Fire

By Dave Simpson

Law360 (February 11, 2019, 8:25 PM EST) -- The Boeing Co. and Southern California Edison Co. have been accused of negligence over the Woolsey Fire outbreak in California state court by Malibu residents and business owners who suffered property damage and losses as a result of the blaze, the plaintiffs' attorneys said.

Boeing and SCE had been hit with a separate suit earlier this month from a group of more than 100 property owners who claim that the companies failed to prevent the fire, which they allege broke out at SCE's Chatsworth substation located on Boeing's Santa Susana Field Laboratory land. SCE has been sued several times over its alleged role in the fire.

The suit filed Friday claims that Boeing was aware that rockets were tested and nuclear accidents have occurred on the site over the years, and that these events resulted in tons of radioactive and toxic chemical waste contaminating the area.

"The Boeing defendants were aware of the foreseeable danger of wildfire causing the toxins in the ground to contaminate the air," the suit claims, noting the Boeing defendants "have or had" a private fire department at the SSFL.

"According to the Boeing defendant's SSFL Emergency Readiness Assurance Plan, submitted to the United States Department of Energy, this was to protect against '[o]ne of the greatest hazards at SSFL ... brush-covered hills. ... it is important to be able to respond quickly to a brush fire.'"

The suit further claims that, on the day of the fire, public firefighters who were responding to the blaze did not recall seeing Boeing's fire crew, but a Boeing spokesperson refuted this claim.

"Security and fire personnel stationed at Santa Susana immediately responded when the fire was first reported and also promptly notified firefighting agencies," the spokesperson told Law360 in an email. "Upon arrival, the county and municipal fire jurisdictions established incident command over the firefighting activities. Cal Fire is conducting an investigation into the origins of the fire. The California Public Utilities Commission is also conducting an investigation. Boeing is fully cooperating with these investigations."

The suit from Malibu victims also slams Edison for numerous reasons, including its alleged lack of response.

"Investigations by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection have already concluded that an earlier fire, which ignited almost two hours before the first reports of Woolsey Fire, was probably caused by SCE equipment," the suit claims. Plaintiffs thereon allege that, despite actual knowledge of this earlier fire, SCE still did not take adequate steps to prevent the far more destructive Woolsey Fire from subsequently igniting later that afternoon."

The Woolsey fire, which broke out on Nov. 8 and was contained Nov. 21, charred about 97,000 acres, razed more than 1,500 buildings and killed three people, according to CalFire.

In December, California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones said in a prepared statement that recent data collected from insurers indicates that homeowners and business owners suffered about $9.05 billion in insured losses from the Camp fire in northern California's Butte County, and the Woolsey and Hill fires in southern California's Los Angeles and Ventura counties. That sum includes claims under home, commercial, automobile and agricultural insurance policies.

Losses from the Camp fire accounted for about $7 billion of the total, while losses from the Woolsey and Hill fires accounted for the other $2.05 billion, according to Jones' data.

Suzelle M. Smith, who is representing the plaintiffs, said in a release that one goal of the suit is to compel Boeing and SCE to take the steps to prevent future fires in the area.

"These corporations know how to improve the safety of their electrical equipment but they have not made the necessary financial investment, preferring to let the community suffer these losses," Smith said. "This must stop."

Plaintiffs in the case announced Friday are represented by Don Howarth, Suzelle M. Smith, and Pauleen Truong of Howarth & Smith. Plaintiffs in the case filed earlier this month are represented by Diane Marger Moore, Michael L. Baum, Ronald L. M. Goldman, Brian R. Strange, Brianna Strange, and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.

Counsel for Boeing and Edison were not immediately known Monday.

The case is Von Oeyen et al. v. SCE Co. et al. in the Superior Court of the State of California, for the County of Los Angeles, Central District. The case number was not immediately available. The previous case filed against Boeing is [redacted] v. SCE et al., case number 19STCV03419, in the Superior Court of the State of California, County of Los Angeles.