In the case of a devastating explosion that killed eight people, injured 58 others, and destroyed 38 homes in a San Bruno neighborhood six years ago, utility company PG&E has been found guilty in US District Court in San Francisco on six of 12 counts. The Mercury News, the Chronicle, and others reported the verdict from the courtroom where it was handed down by a jury of eight men and four women.
The company was felonious on five counts relating to failures to inspect and test gas lines for potential problems. It was also found guilty of felony obstruction: Employees claimed in 2011 that a 2009 document stating certain allowable pipeline pressures was just a draft of a policy never put in place, a misleading statement intended to throw off investigators. PG&E was acquitted on six other charges of violating pipeline safety.
Prosecutors concluded their arguments at the end of July by painting PG&E as a company that had "lost its way." But though the company was fined in 2014 for the explosion, paying $1.4 billion to the Public Utilities Commission, it was possible that PG&E would again face steep financial repercussions in the criminal trial. If, for example, the company had been found guilty on all charges, it would have been liable for an additional $562 million — until the prosecution unexpectedly backed down last week, possibly in order to ensure some conviction, requesting that the court dismiss much of the entire potential punishment.
That still puzzling decision was made during the jury's fourth day of deliberations, and the prosecution decided to let go of a demand to charge the utility twice the amount it would have cost to comply with safety standards, which was estimated at $281 million. Now, PG&E will pay just $3 million in fines, at $500,000 for each conviction, which seems like a negligible and insanely low sum, but is the maximum allowed in this type of case.
So there you have it. You can probably hear the entire community of San Bruno screaming right now.
Update: The New York Times covered the verdict, and adds a statement from PG&E saying they are "committed to re-earning [the public’s trust]. While we are very much focused on the future, we will never forget the lessons of the past."
Did Sam Singer write that?