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PG&E falls 14% after halting dividend, cites potential liability from October's California fires

  • PG&E suspended its dividend late Wednesday.
  • The utility cited uncertainty over its potential liability for October's wildfires in Northern California.
  • PG&E said the cause of the wine country fires remains under investigation.
  • Management said halting the dividend is "prudent."

PG&E workers work to repair power lines in the Coffey Park neighborhood following the damage caused by the Tubbs Fire on October 13, 2017 in Santa Rosa, California.
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PG&E workers work to repair power lines in the Coffey Park neighborhood following the damage caused by the Tubbs Fire on October 13, 2017 in Santa Rosa, California.

Shares of electric utility PG&E sank 14 percent in premarket trading Thursday after suspending its dividend, citing uncertainty regarding its liability in the deadly October wildfires in Northern California.

"No causes have yet been determined for any of the unprecedented wildfires, which continue to be the subject of ongoing investigations," PG&E said in a statement Wednesday after the close. "However, California is one of the only states in the country in which courts have applied inverse condemnation to events caused by utility equipment."

The stock was set to open at a new 52-week low. It closed Wednesday's regular session down about 2 percent.

The San Francisco-based company said that if its "equipment is found to have been a substantial cause of the damage in an event such as a wildfire — even if the utility has followed established inspection and safety rules — the utility may still be liable for property damages and attorneys' fees associated with that event."

The October wildfires in the state's wine country region caused more than $9.4 billion in residential and commercial claims, the California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones announced earlier this month. The fires left destruction and damage to more than 21,000 homes, 2,800 businesses, and more than 6,100 vehicles. Also, there were 44 fatalities from the fire, which destroyed entire neighborhoods in Sonoma County.

"After extensive consideration and in light of the uncertainty associated with the causes and potential liabilities associated with these wildfires as well as state policy uncertainties, the PG&E boards determined that suspending the common and preferred stock dividends is prudent with respect to cash conservation and is in the best long-term interests of the companies, our customers and our shareholders," PG&E corporate chair Richard Kelly said in a statement.

In November, PG&E cut its earnings forecast for the year due to a reinstatement of its liability insurance following the October wildfires. At the time, the company said it had received nine lawsuits in connection with the fires.

California has a history of power lines sometimes sparking wildfires during high wind conditions, so utilities in parts of the state have started responding in elevated fire risk situations by taking a proactive measure — turning off the electricity.

Meantime, the cause of the massive Thomas fire in Southern California is still raging but its cause remains under investigation. Southern California Edison, which provides electricity to customers in the fire region, disclosed last week that investigators may be looking at some of its infrastructure as part of the probe in the Thomas fire.

Edison International, parent of Southern California Edison, was down 2 percent in trading Wednesday and fell nearly 5 percent before the bell Thursday. The Los Angeles Times reported Wednesday that the utility was sued by several residents over damage caused by the Thomas fire.