In California, the concept of “corporate personhood” will be tested if PG&E faces charges of aggravated murder, as many media sources now speculate. Although California Attorney General Xavier Becerra says that the extent of PG&E’s liability in this year’s deadly wildfires has yet to be determined, there has been discussion of inflicting the death penalty on a corporate “person” that has repeatedly proven itself to be a criminal recidivist.
In this case, the “execution” of PG&E would consist of revoking the company’s charter and breaking it up, and selling off its assets to new, smaller power companies that would hopefully be more responsible in the way they maintain their equipment and serve their ratepayers. Alternatively, the state of California could step in and take over, turning PG&E into a public, not-for-profit utility.
All of that is speculation, for the time being. What is becoming clear is that, at the very least, PG&E was criminally negligent by failing to follow state regulations on maintaining its power lines. In a document obtained by CNBC News this past November, PG&E acknowledged that it may bear responsibility for the Camp Fire in which 88 people perished and nearly 14,000 buildings were destroyed.
Now, in a brief filed in federal court just before the weekend, AG Becerra is saying that the multi-billion dollar utility company could face murder charges – if investigations reveal that the company’s “reckless operation” of its power equipment was the cause of any of the numerous wildfires that have plagued California over the past two years. According to a report published in the Sacramento Bee, determining what charges to bring would require prosecutors to “gauge PG&E’s ‘mental state’.”
If corporate person PG&E’s history of recidivism is any indication, assessing its “mental state” should not be much of a problem. The utility is already on probation for its role in the 2010 explosion of a gas line in the Bay Area Community of San Bruno. That tragedy killed eight people and destroyed nearly 40 homes. In that case, U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson sentenced PG&E to what amounted to public “shaming.” The company was ordered to pay for media ads admitting that the explosion had been caused by its own violation of safety regulations. It was also fined $3 million. Additionally, the company and its employees were ordered to perform a total 10,000 hours of public service.
Meanwhile, what else has PG&E been doing? According to an investigative report by CNN, PG&E has promised to be “good” by “implementing new and enhanced safety measures.” However, critics are understandably skeptical. Last year, the company gave its CEO a compensation package worth $8.5 million and spent an additional $8 million on lobbying state lawmakers to pass legislation allowing it to pass the costs of its own negligence on to ratepayers.
That says it all. Add to that the fact that PG&E has been implicated or found responsible in dozens of wildfires dating back over two decades due to violations of state safety regulations. It has been fined and penalized, and yet has refused to change its behavior.
Perhaps the time has come to truly test the concept of corporate personhood by putting PG&E on trial for its life. If found guilty, PG&E should face the same penalty that would be imposed on a natural person convicted of mass murder.