State Public Utilities Commission Has Exclusive Jurisdiction Over Claims that Utility Unreasonably Destroyed Crops Beneath Power Lines


A public utility, Pacific Gas and Electric Company, owns easements across rural properties traversed by its electric transmission lines. The easements typically, as here, authorize PG&E to trim vegetation in the vicinity of its power lines to prevent accidental contacts that can cause fires and related damages. After such a fire caused massive and widespread destruction and power outages in the Northeast and southern Canada in 2003, PG&E and other utilities across the country began trimming more aggressively to prevent, to the extent possible, accidental contacts. The California Public Utilities Commission had regulated the vegetation management practices of the state’s utilities, establishing minimum (but not maximum) power line clearances.

Plaintiffs in these consolidated cases were walnut growers. PG&E transmission lines ran over their orchards. In separate actions, plaintiffs sued PG&E alleging that beginning in 2004, the utility beginning trimming the trees below its lines so aggressively that the trees became unproductive. Plaintiffs sought monetary damages, including substantial penalties, and injunctive relief requiring PG&E to return to its earlier trimming practices.

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