Embattled Northern California utility Pacific Gas & Electric Co. could face murder or manslaughter charges if found negligent for any recent wildfires that have ravaged the state, California's attorney general said Friday.
The legal brief filed in federal court by Attorney General Xavier Becerra outlined several possible scenarios under which the utility could face criminal charges related to the Camp Fire or other wildfires since 2017, according to The Sacramento Bee.
If the company was found to have started a wildfire with "reckless operation or maintenance" of its power lines, any criminal liability would depend on the "degree of its recklessness" according to the brief filed by Becerra's office, which stressed it had not reached any conclusions.
California law allows corporations to be held criminally liable, but the brief filed on Friday was advisory and done at the request of a federal judge overseeing the criminal case over PG&E's deadly natural gas explosion in 2010.
If any criminal charges are eventually filed, they would most likely come from county district attorneys and not the state, the Sacramento Bee reported.
At least one D.A. chose a financial settlement in lieu of criminal prosecution for a small fire in 2017, while another declined to file charges for the 2017 Cascade Fire that killed 4 because of the difficulty of obtaining a criminal conviction, according to the newspaper.
Regardless of any possible criminal charges, PG&E is facing a growing number of lawsuits alleging its equipment started the Camp Fire in November that killed at least 86 people, destroyed 14,000 homes and leveled Paradise, a city of 27,000 residents.
PG&E reported an equipment malfunction at the time and location where the fire started, causing its stock to plummet 40 percent earlier this month. Fire officials have not yet officially said what caused the blaze, but have focused on power equipment.
State investigators blame PG&E's equipment for starting 17 wildfires last year and it faces $15 billion in damages and cleanup costs and numerous related lawsuits. Investigators are still determining the cause of several other 2017 Northern California wildfires that could increase the company's liabilities if it's held responsible for those blazes.
PG&E could face billions more in damages if investigators determine its equipment started the state's most destructive wildfire that destroyed Paradise.
In a response to the brief on Friday, PG&E told KTVU in a statement its most important responsibility is "public and workforce safety."
"Our focus continues to be on assessing our infrastructure to further enhance safety and helping our customers continue to recover and rebuild," the utility said in a statement. "Throughout our service area, we are committed to doing everything we can to help further reduce the risk of wildfire.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.