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Judge Postpones Decision On San Bruno Explosion Lawsuit

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A firefighter is seen running as a massive fire roars through a San Bruno neighborhood. (AP)

A firefighter is seen running as a massive fire roars through a San Bruno neighborhood. (AP)

SAN BRUNO (CBS SF) — A San Mateo County Superior Court judge on Thursday decided to postpone a decision on how a lawsuit filed by victims of the pipeline explosion in San Bruno should proceed against PG&E.

The lawsuit involves 92 cases and 323 plaintiffs who are suing PG&E for the Sept. 9, 2010 explosion on one of its natural gas transmission lines in the Crestmoor Canyon neighborhood, a disaster that killed eight people, injured dozens more and ravaged an entire neighborhood.

Photo Gallery: San Bruno Pipeline Explosion

After hearing arguments from attorneys for PG&E and those representing the plaintiffs, Judge Steven Dylina said he would determine what trial structure would best suit “the unique aspects of the case” and set a trial date at a case management conference on Sept. 22.

Burlingame lawyer Frank Pitre, who represented attorneys for all of the plaintiffs at Thursday’s proceedings, argued for a trial structure that would address liability and damages collectively by presenting bellwether cases—select cases that best represent the entire group’s claims.

A bellwether trial would divide the claims into categories, such as physical injury, property damage and emotional distress. A selection of the 92 claims that best represented each category would be tried together, and the results of the trial would be applied to all of the cases.

“They have been tried, true and tested in a variety of forms,” Pitre said of the bellwether structure. “All other cases would be able to have a benchmark.”

PG&E attorney Gayle Gough said that the representative nature of a bellwether structure would exclude most claimants from the trial process. Gough argued that consolidating all of the cases into one liability trial, followed by a mediation phase between the utility and each claimant to determine a cash settlement, would suit the unique needs of each case.

“A liability phase would allow all parties to be included,” Gough said. “PG&E is wanting to include all of these folks.”

Pitre argued that the mediation process would likely be confidential, depriving the victims of making their settlements public or even being able to talk about the details of their individual settlements with their neighbors.

“We want a public trial,” Pitre said. “We do not want protracted litigation and confidential settlements.”

Judge Dylina said that the court would prefer to see the claimants and PG&E engage in a mediation process, but sensed resistance from the plaintiff’s attorneys.

“I’d like to get everyone into the mediation process,” Dylina said. “I can beg, I can grovel, I can plead, but I can’t order it.”

Attorneys for both sides indicated they would file legal briefs outlining their preferred trial structure before the Sept. 22 case management conference.

Dylina said he would review the briefs and announce a trial structure on Sept. 22.

“I think we can craft this in a way that meets everyone’s needs,” he said.

(Copyright 2011 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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