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Irvine Eminent Domain Legal Blog

Utilities, other stakeholders wrangle over inverse condemnation

Earlier this month, Governor Jerry Brown announced the creation of a special committee to reassess state policy on financial responsibility for wildfires. Under current law, utilities like PG&E and California Edison can be held liable for wildfires sparked by their equipment even if they're not found negligent. This is called "inverse condemnation," and it's a big issue for the utilities.

Last October's wildfires in Northern California forced the evacuation of over 100,000, destroyed 8,800 buildings and resulted in the deaths of 44 people. Financially, the fires resulted in an estimated $10 billion in insurance claims alone.

Lawmakers want to use eminent domain to gain public beach access

Like all coastal beaches in California, picturesque Martins Beach is public. That is because California's Coastal Act holds that all of California's coasts are a public resource.

Unfortunately, accessing Martins Beach requires using a private road. That didn't used to be a problem. Until 2008, the road's owners didn't object to the public using the road to reach the beach, and often left the gate open.

2017 wine country wildfires to cost PG&E estimated $2.5 billion

Pacific Gas & Electric Corp (PG&E) recently released an estimate of its expected losses from last year's Northern California wildfires. In a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, PG&E said it planned to take a $2.5-billion charge against its profits for the quarter ending June 30.

However, the utility admitted that charge represented the low end of the reasonable estimate of its losses and that it was unable to give a high-end estimate. This is because it is the subject of a state investigation and more than 200 private lawsuits in connection with the fires. The state has said the total property damage from the fires could top $10 billion.

San Diego agency may take downtown block through eminent domain

The San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) has been pursuing the possibility of taking a downtown city block through eminent domain in order to replace its current, rented, headquarters.

Although building a new tower could cost over $112 million, the idea offers two advantages. First, compared with renting space, owning its headquarters could save SANDAG about $26 million over 40 years. Second, the agency could gain a new revenue stream by renting space to tenants.

Official report blames PG&E for Northern California wildfires

Officials from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) recently released a report tying Pacific Gas and Electric to 12 Northern California fires last fall. Those fires resulted in the deaths of 18 people and caused billions of dollars in damage. Many of them were reportedly sparked when trees or tree parts fell onto PG&E lines, or when the lines were downed. An earlier investigation blamed PG&E for three wildfires, alleging the utility failed to trim trees near power lines.

According to the new report, Cal Fire's investigations have been referred to local authorities because violations of state law have been alleged. As we have discussed before on this blog, however, the California Constitution allows property owners to hold utilities liable for losses caused by their equipment, even when the utility was not negligent.

Any major civic project could involve eminent domain

At a recent city council meeting in Palo Alto, residents learned that all 10 of the alternatives for a major rail redesign could potentially involve properties being taken by eminent domain. More than two dozen people addressed the council, many of them concerned that the project could result in their properties being taken by the city. Others expressed concerns that the project will worsen traffic conditions for nearby properties.

It was a spirited debate, but we won't try to reproduce it fully here. If you would like a detailed view, please read this article by the Palo Alto Weekly.

Group fights utilities' attempts to avoid liability for wildfires

As we discussed in our last post, the California constitution gives property owners the right to hold utility companies financially responsible for losses caused by their equipment, even if the utility followed state safety rules. Property owners can bring inverse condemnation claims against the utility for the losses they incurred.

Inverse condemnation is part of eminent domain law. In California, governments and utilities can take private property for the public good, but they must pay just compensation. In a traditional eminent domain case, the government or utility proposes to take a piece of real estate and then makes an offer of compensation, which the property owner can negotiate.

Judge won't release PG&E from potential liability for wildfires

California utilities PG&E Corp. and Edison International have been fighting in the courts to avoid liability for damage from last year's wildfires, which were the most destructive in history. Although it has not yet been determined that the utilities were responsible for starting any of the fires, they have been seeking a court ruling that they can't be held liable in an inverse condemnation claim brought by homeowners. The homeowners have reason to suspect that power lines may have sparked the 2017 blazes.

Inverse condemnation claims are typically brought against governments or government agencies who, through action or inaction, take or damage property without paying just compensation. When this is done, citizens have the right to sue for that compensation.

What are regulatory takings?

We often discuss eminent domain and inverse condemnation actions on this blog, but there is another way the government might take private party. Regularly taking is distinct from these other actions, but ultimately, it has the same results as an eminent domain action.

Regulatory taking refers to the process in which a government regulation places extensive limits on the use of private property. When the regulation is such that it results in loss of economic use of the land and/or makes private property public property, then a property owner may have grounds to file a legal claim seeking compensation.

Reasons to fight for fair compensation in an eminent domain claim

Learning that the government is seizing your property with an eminent domain action can be devastating. People in this situation often feel angry and powerless to do anything about the situation.

However, as a homeowner, you can do something to respond to these actions: you can fight for just compensation. This can seem difficult and seem overwhelming, but negotiating for fair payment can be crucial for a number of reasons.

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