Woolsey Fire Aftermath: Beware Malibu… Sharks in the Water

After surviving the Woolsey Fire catastrophe last November, nothing can make Malibu residents more annoyed than being preyed upon by the vast number of lawyers and their law firms seeking clients to sue those responsible for the disaster.  Dozens of lawsuits have already been filed and hearings have already been held, while lawyers continue to vie for the most number of client victims to battle the goliath defendants.


There is great power in numbers.  A lawyer or law firm with the most number of clients stands the greatest likelihood to be appointed by the trial judge as lead counsel in pursuing the mass action through courts.  Standing in the wings remain all of the other lawyers awaiting the outcome of the liability determination for their clients, as determined at trial, and if successful, those lawyers return to the conversation with their book of clients to pursue their client’s damages and attach their attorney’s fees and costs to the recovery of same.

And exactly what is a “mass action,”?

The Woolsey Fire disaster has been called a mass action, not class action, because the victims’ losses vary and are not the same. Renters who did not own their residence lost possessions, while homeowners lost their structures and everything within.  Lawsuits filed after a disaster are often grouped together as a “mass action” for trial purposes to determine the liability of the defendants for those losses. Once liability is proven, the remaining question is what damages do the defendants owe the plaintiffs?  Here, in Woolsey, damages are unique to each and every plaintiff, no two the same, and your unique individual loss will vary from your neighbors’.

If you’ve never sued anyone or been sued yourself, how do you vet an attorney or her firm to find the best counsel most suited for the job?  Some of us have relied upon social media groups, ads in the newspaper, or Town Hall meetings to scope the field and listen with a critical ear.

But despite our best efforts for analysis, there are so many lawyers to choose from, and all promise they are the best choice.

Why are so many lawyers interested in signing up Malibu fire victims?

The obvious answer is money.  No known attorneys have relied upon altruism and offered to represent any Woolsey Fire victim for free.  Nor should they.  Lawsuits and litigation cost both time and money, and if we win, our attorney should win, too.

But how does a fire victim select the right attorney?

First, broaden the scope of your analysis.  Consider the lawyer’s and law firm’s own expertise in handling large loss cases against government entities, utility companies and large corporations.  Less significant are lawyers and firms touting their success settling cases for fire victims against power companies, but rather, firms both qualified and capable of winning cases at trial or on appeal for clients with real property following any singular or large-scale event, like landslides, floods, and sinkholes caused by municipal road work, erosion or gas service, not just power companies.  Qualified attorneys and firms have expertise established by previous cases they themselves have won against governments, utility companies and large corporations, not just read about in published journals.  And the most capable are those who have succeeded at trial or on appeal.  Any attorney can settle a case.

Next, know your partner.  Like any relationship, you are looking for a long-term partner who will shake your hand after a verdict, not sell your case to another law firm for a shared fee.  Fee sharing is a big part of the sign-up game.  Some law firms swoop into a community to quickly sign disaster victims, then, sign away those same clients to a more qualified and capable law firm than the one you chose, while earning a shared fee with their colleague from your loss. Disaster victims are not commodities. Never sell yourself short.  Make sure your legal partner plans a long-term relationship with you, and ask what other cases involving real property losses your partner has won at trial or on appeal.  Remember, anyone can settle a claim.

Next, consider your partner’s history and reputation. Has your partner defendedpower companies in the past?  How can any law firm advocate for a fire victim against a power company, while also defending a power company against similar claims of other fire victims?  Consider, for example, social media chatter by a group of well-doers vetting law firms to determine which is most qualified to represent the group.  Ask yourselves, who shepherds the group?  Is the vetting process truly independent, or guided by particular interests?  Do those interests stand to gain, either financially or politically, for themselves?  What’s at stake if you participate?  Can’t you get the same fee arrangement if you hire the same firm yourself?

Next, explore any possible conflicts of interest your partner may have.  Has the law firm you may hire defendedutility companies against claims like yours?  One of the power players in our waters is the international law firm of Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, LLP, with practice areas ranging from antitrust and competition to sports and other litigation.  Quinn Emanuel partnered with the law firm of Engstrom Lipscomb & Lack for victims of the Woolsey Fire.  Local Point Dume resident and Quinn Emanuel partner Ken Chiate represents Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) as defense counsel in fire lawsuits brought against the power company prior to the Woolsey Fire and has argued against inverse condemnation (that is, PG&E’s responsibility for condemning fire victims’ real property), among other claims, in support of his client, PG&E.  Now, in an apparent turn-of-face, Chiate and Quinn Emanuel have signed Woolsey Fire victims and have alleged inverse condemnation claims against Southern California Edison (SoCal Ed).  When asked about any potential conflict of interest in defending power companies from fire claims while now suing SoCal Ed for Woolsey Fire victims, Chiate offered, “Quinn Emanuel has never represented Edison (SCE) before at any time.”  Chiate denied any conflict of interest and further shared that Quinn Emanuel is “co-counsel with Engstrom Lipscomb & Lack (EL&L) and have agreed that any argument on inverse [condemnation] would be argued by [EL&L] just as they have been arguing in favor of inverse for many years, successfully, including specifically against [SoCal] Edison…” You be the judge.

There are sharks in our waters, all vying for your case to help you pursue your losses against those responsible for the Woolsey Fire. Carefully consider entertaining social media chatter before relying on social media for influence in helping you choose an attorney.  Carefully vet your lawyer’s potential conflicts before baiting your hook. Carefully review your attorney’s qualifications to help determine their capability to serve as your lawyer — from beginning, through middle, to end of trial — and never allow any attorney to use you as a commodity for sale in a shared fee arrangement.

The Local Malibu has interviewed other attorneys and their law firms to help Woolsey Fire victims navigate through these unchartered waters and to help our readers select the most qualified and capable lawyers for their case.  Navigating these unchartered waters as fire victims is a new role for many of our readers, and for us.  Our FireWire coverage will continue to offer you tips and information to help you make informed choices and recover from this disaster as quickly and effectively as possible.

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Cece Woods

The Current Report Editor in Chief Cece Woods started The Local Malibu, an activism based platform in 2014. The publication was instrumental in the success of pro-preservation ballot measures and seating five top vote-getters in the Malibu City Council elections.

During the summer of 2018, Woods exposed the two-year law enforcement cover-up in the Malibu Creek State Park Shootings, and a few short months later provided the most comprehensive local news coverage during the Woolsey Fire attracting over one million hits across her social media platforms.

Since 2020, Woods was the only journalist reporting on the on-going public corruption involving former L.A. Metro CEO Phil Washington. Woods worked with Political Corruption expert Adam Loew, DC Watchdog organizations and leaders in the Capitol exposing Washington which ultimately led to the withdrawal of his nomination to head the FAA.

Woods also founded Malibu based 90265 Magazine and Cali Mag devoted to the authentic southern California lifestyle.

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