Willenken Obtains Early Dismissal of Right-Of-Way Class Action: A Precedent-Setting Victory for Public Utility and Telecom Companies Throughout California

In the first right-of-way class action suit ever brought in California state court, the Superior Court of the County of San Francisco recently dismissed, without leave to amend, all causes of action and class allegations brought against one of California’s largest public utility companies, Pacific Gas and Electric Company (“PG&E”).

Willenken represented PG&E. Famed class action lawyer William Lerach’s law firm, Lerach Coughlin Stoia Geller Rudman & Robbins LLP of San Diego, California, were lead plaintiffs’ counsel.

The plaintiffs, a putative class of landowners throughout central and northern California, alleged that PG&E exceeded the scope of utility easements it obtained from their predecessors in interest by leasing space on its utility poles to third parties for the installation of fiber optic cables. Claiming that the utility easements were strictly dedicated to power transmission and communications related thereto, plaintiffs argued that PG&E violated Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code § 17200 and trespassed on their property because the fiber optic cables are used for general telecommunication purposes—including providing internet connectivity to homes and businesses. The plaintiffs sought injunctive relief as well as damages, including disgorgement of lease revenues and diminution in land value.

On behalf of PG&E, Willenken filed demurrers to all causes of action and the class action allegations. The court sustained the demurrers and granted judgment in favor of PG&E. The court agreed with PG&E’s argument that it had no jurisdiction over this action and, in any event, there would not be sufficient common issues to sustain class allegations.

Although unprecedented in California state court, the Koponen case is one of the latest in a series of right-of-way suits that have been brought across the nation. Starting in approximately the mid-1990’s, a consortium of plaintiffs’ law firms based on the East Coast and in the Midwest have been responsible for bringing class action lawsuits against defendants who had installed fiber optic cables across plaintiffs’ land utilizing rights of way or easements that did not specifically allow the installation of fiber optic cables. The plaintiffs’ attorneys began by suing telecommunications and railroad companies that had laid down fiber optic cables on land covered by railroad rights-of-way. More recently, plaintiffs’ attorneys have turned their attention to public utilities, particularly electric companies that have laid fiber optic cables across land covered by easements for power lines.