Jurors Won’t Hear Graphic Details of San Bruno Blast

(UPDATED) The April 26 trial date has been delayed for an unspecified period by the judge, at PG&E’s request. Next hearing April 28.

Jurors will not be allowed to hear  the most graphic details of death and devastation from the explosion of a Pacific Gas & Electric gas pipeline in San Bruno, nor will they see a 28-foot-long segment of exploded pipe the prosecutors want to bring to the courthouse on a flatbed truck.

sanbrunoafterIn an order Monday, U.S. District Court Judge Thelton Henderson said the potential of unfair prejudice against PG&E outweighed the value of presenting to jurors pictures of the explosion site, testimony about the fire, the number of deaths (eight), injuries, and houses damaged (120) or destroyed (38).

He refused to allow video footage or photographs depicting the dead or people engulfed in flames, graphic descriptions of the burns victims suffered or testimony by the surviving loved ones about the deaths of children, parents or spouses, or even recordings of panic-stricken 9-1-1 calls.

“This is not a trial about the San Bruno explosion,” Henderson wrote. Rather, PG&E stands accused of criminal violations, including one count of obstruction of the National Transportation Safety Board NTSB investigation and 12 counts of violating minimum federal safety standards for the transport of natural gas by pipeline.

On September 9, 2010, a 30-inch diameter natural gas pipeline operated by PG&E ruptured, causing a massive explosion and fire that killed eight people and damaged or destroyed 158 homes.

The NTSB investigation found PG&E deficient in recordkeeping, maintenance of the pipeline and in its integrity management pipeline.

Obstruction Charge

As part of the data requests by the NTSB, PG&E was asked for documents related to planned and unplanned pressure increases on the failed line in the prior five years. There are maximum allowable operating pressures in densely populated areas where gas releases could cause deaths.

PG&E responded with a document that its policy was to consider a manufacturing threat only if pressure on the line exceeded the five-year limit by “10 percent or more,” but there is no such 10 percent or more allowance in the Pipeline Safety Act.

In April 2011, PG&E told the NTSB its original document was an “unapproved draft” and now its official policy. It then submitted a new document without the “10 percent or more” policy. The government alleges that PG&E did not tell the NTSB that its internal staff in fact followed the “10 percent or more” policy, despite knowing it violated the Pipeline Safety Act. That is the basis of the charge that PG&E obstructed the NTSB investigation.

Explosion Evidence Relevant

Although Henderson would not allow graphic details of death and destruction, the San Bruno explosion “is unquestionably relevant to all thirteen counts that remain to be tried in this case.”  The government is not required to prove the obstruction count in a vacuum, he said. The jury is entitled to know the time, place and circumstances that are the basis of the charge.

“As PG&E knows well, avoiding accidents like the San Bruno explosion is the very purpose of the Pipeline Safety Act,” he said.

But it is not the jury’s job to determine the cause of the explosion and therefore evidence or testimony is inadmissible if it states that PG&E’s intentional pressure spikes did in fact cause the crack.

He also limited the ability of jurors to hear the NTSB’s conclusions that PG&E was “deficient and ineffective, and was the probable cause of the accident.”

“The ultimate issue of the NTSB investigation – the cause of the San Bruno explosion – is not at issue in this case,” Henderson said, limiting the juror’s ability to hear the conclusions and opinions by the NTSB.

PG&E Greed Evidence

Henderson did give the government a break by rejecting, at least for now, PG&E’s effort to exclude all financial information, budget-setting process, employee pay and profits, that might suggest greed as a motive.

The judge said the government offered something more than just greed. The government alleged that PG&E’s profit motive drove “cost-cutting” decisions that actually meant “safety-cutting” decisions, including allegations that hydrotesting of old pipes would be expensive.

The criminal trial is set to begin April 26, although PG&E has a motion pending to delay the trial. That will be heard Thursday, April 21.

Case: US v. PG&E, No. 14-cr-175


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