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Morgan Smith

Graphics That Helped Plaintiffs Win the PG&E San Bruno Fire Case

Cogent Legal created plaintiffs' visual presentation of the PG&E San Bruno fire cases for the key motion for summary judgment brought by defendant PG&E.

PG&E San Bruno explosionOne of Cogent Legal’s clients, Frank Pitre of the powerhouse plaintiff litigation firm Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy, recently won the CAOC Consumer Attorney of the Year award for his tenacity in fighting PG&E on behalf of many San Bruno families who were tragically injured or killed in the 2010 gas line explosion. Frank won this award for settling the cases with PG&E with strict requirements that go above the law, requiring PG&E to do extensive testing to assure the safety of their lines in other locations.

These cases were exceedingly complex, and Frank brought in Cogent Legal to help with the visual presentation of these cases for the key motion for summary judgment brought by defendant PG&E seeking to exclude any claim for punitive damages and for the potential trial.

One thing I really respect about Frank Pitre and his firm is their realization that visual aids would be key to making their case, and their desire to bring visuals into major motions and mediations.  There is simply no excuse in today’s litigation not to plan and prepare to present your cases visually at all key stages. In this post, I’ll spotlight some of the graphics we made and explain the strategic thinking behind them.

First, some background on the case, which killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes: Defendant PG&E claimed in their moving papers that (1) the pipe was installed in 1956 by a subcontractor and PG&E had no knowledge of any defect in the pipe; (2) the pipe operated as it should for 50 years before this incident; and (3) there were no warning signs regarding this particular piece of pipe that would put them on notice of a problem, much less constitute a conscious disregard for safety. While liability was admitted, the ruling on the punitive damage motion was key to this trial and/or the settlement of the case.

A home on fire after the deadly pipeline explosion in San Bruno in 2010 (photo by Brian Carmody courtesy
A home on fire after the deadly pipeline explosion in San Bruno in 2010 (photo by Brian Carmody courtesy

Plaintiffs’ story was obviously far different than PG&E’s. Plaintiffs had years of evidence regarding PG&E active neglect of these lines, and more damming, of PG&E intentionally skirting or undermining any legal requirements that would have required them to check their lines for safety. So while PG&E could honestly say they did not know of this specific hazard, plaintiffs claimed that it was a conscious disregard based on intentional actions to NOT know about this problem, and to prevent any requirements that would have revealed this defect.

Cogent Legal’s 3D modeling of San Bruno pipe installed in 1956 under existing homes before explosion.

From a visual presentation standpoint, our firm faced the challenge of distilling 50-plus years’ of events and documents into an understandable and persuasive graphic for the judge at the motion hearing. A lot of attorneys might automatically think to create a PowerPoint to present all this information, but we recommended an interactive linear timeline made with Adobe Flash instead (see screenshots below).

An interactive timeline has the advantage of allowing the user (the attorney or court) to click through and see detailed information on any subject they choose. Also, the information builds in parts so the viewer is not overwhelmed by seeing everything at once. The screen shot below shows the full timeline with all the chronological pieces showing. If the user clicks on one of the document icons or warning sign icons, additional background information will pop out.

We also created two large blow-up boards that covered the entire timeline so it was always in front of the judge and visible. Finally, both the interactive and printed copies were provided to the court for the court’s consideration during deliberation.

Double click image to see full size.


With visual aids and with the skill of the trial team, the motion for summary judgment was denied.

Frank Pitre said of our firm’s work,  “Simply put, I wouldn’t trust anyone else with trial graphics except Cogent Legal if you want to effectively capture key concepts of persuasion to a judge, jury or mediator. They have repeatedly proven to be creative, responsive and efficient in cases of any size or type.”

Pitre’s firm also asked Cogent to prepare some demonstratives for trial to explain the concept of the amount of pressure going through these lines at the time of the explosion. The evidence was the lines regularly ran at approximately 350 psi (pounds per square inch), but went as high as 400 on the day of the incident. In order to give reference to such numbers so the lay person could understand them, we did some simple math.

First of all, we determined the area of the diameter of the pipe to be 706 inches, and calculated that this results in 250,000 pounds to 282,000 pounds of pressure at 350 psi and 400 psi respectively. For reference, we used the analogy of a 1956 Ford truck weight to show the amount of force on this pipe. The blue trucks depict the additional force placed on the pipe on the day of the explosion when the line went to 400 psi.

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This graphic is an example of using analogies to make an abstract concept of a calculation more understandable.

We at Cogent Legal congratulate Frank Pitre and the entire trial team at Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy on obtaining these remarkable settlements that make the state of California a safer place.

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