Attorney for Texas wildfire lawsuit speaks on the impacts for his clients

Mikel Watts, an attorney representing more than 100 families and ranchers who were substantially affected by the recent Texas Panhandle wildfires, spoke about his lawsuit against the utility companies responsible for the Smokehouse Creek Fire. Named in the suit are Xcel Energy, its Texas subsidiary Southwestern Public Service Co.  (SPS) and Osmose Utilities Services.

Watts has been involved in many high-profile cases during his legal career and was part of the litigation that brought a $13.5 billion settlement from Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) for the 2017 and 2018 California Camp Fires. PG&E was found to have had equipment failures and downed powerlines that started the wildfires that resulted in the loss of over 18,000 structures and 85 deaths. Watts is also representing the families of 29 residents who died in the town of Lahaina in a suit against Hawaii Electric for the Maui Wildfires, which left over 100 people dead and 2,200 buildings destroyed.

Osmose Utilities Services was contracted to the company that inspected poles for SPS, and the lawsuit contends that the contractor "negligently failed to adequately or properly inspect or report on the rotten pole that caused the fire."

A power line near Canadian is seen burning from the Smokehouse Creek Fire in February in Hemphill County.
A power line near Canadian is seen burning from the Smokehouse Creek Fire in February in Hemphill County.

One of Watts's clients is Melanie McQuiddy, the first plaintiff to file suit in Hemphill County and one of the many affected by the Smokehouse Creek fire, which destroyed over a million acres in the Texas Panhandle. The lawsuit claims the power pole owned by Xcel subsidiary Southwestern Public Service Co. was in bad physical shape before it fell and caused the fire, with the company failing in its duty to inspect and maintain its equipment.

“The fire started when a rotted-out utility pole fell in high winds," Watts said. "The pole had been inspected by Osmose in the weeks before the fire. They put a red stamp on the pole, which is a signal not to climb this pole, and it is not stable. It had been scheduled to be replaced, but the company had not gotten around to replacing it."

Watts was not sure of the exact timeline for when the pole had been marked but speculated it had to have been in the last seven weeks. He said the exact timeline for the trial would be revealed in the discovery stage.

“Several hundred structures were lost, and over a million acres of valuable ranchland were lost,” Watts said. "This was an out-of-control wildfire that burned at about 3,000 degrees. This type of fire burns and kills the root systems and (the land) will not be usable for cattle grazing for several years. Economically, this will devastate local ranchers who lost tens of thousands of cattle collectively.”

Watts said the economic impact could be felt for generations to come. Watts sees a recurring issue with these utility companies not maintaining their infrastructure, causing multiple fires across Texas.

“This is a recurrent problem across the western United States, with an aging utility grid where profits are put in front of people and equipment is not being properly served and maintained," Watts added.

With this fire, Watts says that Xcel has admitted responsibility, but at issue is the degree of responsibility and damage.

“I think they know they are responsible, but their position seems to be, oh, it's not that bad, and so we will have a debate about the degree of the damage that Xcel caused,” Watts said. “They acknowledge they must pay the damage because their equipment started the fire.”

Beyond land and livestock damages, Watts says the ranchers have lost their means to make a living and the area to do it in. For these ranchers, many of whom have had generations of breeding a line of cattle to create value in their product, there will have to be a complete restart of their herds and bloodlines.

“It is difficult for these farmers and ranchers who lost the land that they treasure, many of which have been in their family for generations,” Watts said. "They have lost their livelihoods, and the question is how long that will last, so we need to get these people compensated quickly.”

Another issue regarding the level of damage that these plaintiffs have sustained is that, according to Watts, insurance is usually not sufficient to cover all damage.

“I think litigation pressure from communities results in changes in technologies, procedures, and cooperation policies to prevent disasters like this from happening again,” he said. “Utilities are government sponsored monopolies that are given the ability to charge regulated prices to insure themselves a profit. You cannot just turn the power off. These companies must do a better job of maintaining their equipment, because when wildfires happen, people die. In this case, a lot of cows died.”

Watts says that the requirement for Xcel to make sure that its equipment does not fall apart and start a fire is a non-delegable duty in the state.

“You cannot assign it to somebody else, but these utility companies hire other companies, and, in this case, Xcel hired Osmose to do the inspections for their poles and the like. Osmose was clearly out there, the pole was clearly rotted out, and a red tag was clearly put on it, marking it not safe. Only discovery will tell whether Xcel made the decision not to do it or just had not gotten around to it or what. But there is plenty of blame to go around,” he said.

Watts said that litigation like this often results in companies being prosecuted for their responsibility for not maintaining their infrastructure.

According to Watts, a great amount of effort is still being made to assess the damage his plaintiffs have suffered. “Hopefully, this moves forward in months, not years,” he said. "We need to press this issue collectively as a community. A bunch of ranchers combining forces is an army the utility companies must take notice of. So collectively, you are much stronger than if only some people are involved and others are not.”

This article originally appeared on Amarillo Globe-News: Attorney for lawsuit over Texas Panhandle wildfires speaks on impact