PG&E Corp. says it has found suspicious monetary claims by victims of California’s wildfires, including one from a man who says a 500-pound (227-kilogram) emerald worth US$280 million was destroyed at his home a year ago in the most destructive and deadliest wildfire in state history.
The utility is probing duplicate or “exceptionally large monetary claims, which appear suspicious,” according to a court filing that is part of efforts to determine PG&E’s potential liability from fire-related losses and estimate damages. U.S. District Judge James Donato will probably take up the issue Monday at a regularly scheduled hearing.
PG&E, which filed for bankruptcy in the face of liability over the wildfires, wants to question the owner of the emerald, who says it was destroyed in the 2018 Camp Fire that killed 86 people and razed the town of Paradise. PG&E’s equipment was found to have contributed to the blaze. In addition to seeking reimbursement for the emerald, the man and his wife submitted four duplicate claims of US$4.5 million, PG&E says.
PG&E wants victims’ documents, such as appraisal reports and receipts, to support some claims. “With respect to the claim for the US$280 million emerald,” the company wants proof the owner made an effort to “secure and protect the emerald and documents showing that the emerald was damaged or destroyed,” according to the filing.
Information from seven individual claims totalling US$370 million will be used to determine whether “a discount should apply to account for false or overvalued claims as part of the overall estimation process,” PG&E said.
PG&E didn’t identify the owner of the emerald or those submitting allegedly dubious claims. Neither did lawyers on a committee representing fire victims, who argue the utility is spotlighting information about individuals who aren’t part of the proceeding before Donato, and that such specific objections must be raised in the bankruptcy court.
The committee also argues that PG&E’s probing is generally improper. The company has access to a database of 62,000 victims and its inquiries of victims who will testify in the case is especially misplaced because their role is to offer first-hand stories of their survival of the fires. Some of those victims have been displaced from their homes, lost family members and not started rebuilding or getting psychological treatment.
“Asking these fire victims to produce financial back-up for their claims and be deposed on the details of this backup is unduly burdensome and should not be permitted,” lawyers for the committee argued in a filing.
The case is In re PG&E Corp., 19-cv-05257, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California (San Francisco).
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