REDWOOD CITY -- A judge has tentatively ruled that PG&E could be on the hook for what may be hundreds of millions of dollars in punitive damage payments to survivors of the deadly San Bruno blast, attorneys said Monday.

San Mateo County Superior Court Judge Steven Dylina is expected to make a final ruling Tuesday on whether punitive damages will remain a possibility in the massive civil case involving more than 350 plaintiffs. Dylina could still reverse the tentative ruling, as he did for one of the three San Bruno-related matters he decided from the bench Monday.

If Dylina goes ahead with his choice, it would allow a jury to weigh whether Pacific Gas & Electric should be ordered to pay punitive damages, which are intended to punish wrongdoing. The jury would also set the amount of the penalty.

In a full-day hearing, attorneys for the utility took a hardline position that it had no idea its pipe was dangerous. One of the company's large natural gas lines tore open Sept. 9, 2010, and sparked a fire in a San Bruno neighborhood, killing eight people and destroying 38 homes.

Attorneys for the survivors have argued the blast could have been prevented if PG&E focused on keeping its customers safe instead of executive pay and bonuses.

The plaintiffs want to prove the company can be hit with punitive damages because of "a willful and conscious disregard for the rights and safety of others," according to court records.

Attorney John Lyons, representing the utility, argued the company had no idea Line 132 was missing a weld on one of its seams, which ruptured.


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"We didn't know the facts," Lyons said. "We made a mistake."

Lyons also addressed a concern raised by the federal investigators who probed the blast and later slammed PG&E for shoddy records. He said the company would have treated the ill-fated pipe the same even if company records had correctly shown it had a seam.

While the plaintiffs didn't have their turn yet to make their case, plaintiffs attorney Mike Danko used a paper clip to illustrate the company could have avoided the tragedy. He said metal specialists can predict the exact moment a paper clip will break after being repeatedly bent.

"It's the same things with gas pipes, it turns out," he said. "From the time (Line 132) was in the ground, it was going to explode. It was just a matter of when."

The PG&E lawsuits are slated to go to trail in January.

Contact Joshua Melvin at 650-348-4335. Follow him at Twitter.com/melvinreport.