SACRAMENTO — PG&E’s lawyers have requested proof — understandably, a whole lot of proof — after a married couple claimed the 2018 Camp Fire destroyed a massive $280 million emerald they’d been keeping in their Paradise home.
The so-called “Beleza Emerald” is described in court documents as a 500-pound “solid block of black schist and quartz with green crystals.” PG&E’s attorneys write that the alleged owners, in an insurance claim filed July 15 to Pacific Gas and Electric Co., say the state’s deadliest and most destructive wildfire in recorded history damaged or destroyed their precious gem as it sat in their home on Edgewood Lane in Paradise.
That item was among several termed “suspicious” by lawyers for PG&E and its debtors in a court filing last Friday, an effort to lower the estimate on its financial liability for the disaster. The beleaguered utility declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy earlier this year and remains entrenched in legal battles as it processes tens of thousands of insurance claims related to the devastating November 2018 Camp Fire, which killed 85 people and for which PG&E has been found liable.
PG&E, which recently extended the deadline for claims through the end of this year, says it had received about 70,000 claims from wildfire victims as of last week. Cal Fire determined the cause of the Camp Fire to be PG&E equipment, which was also blamed for a number of other wildfires in 2017 and 2018.
In a letter to U.S. District Judge James Donato of the Northern District of California, attorneys for PG&E and its debtors allege that seven individual claimants have “collectively asserted over $350 million in damages,” coming from “duplicative and/or exceptionally large monetary claims, which appear suspicious.” The Beleza Emerald would make up about 80% of that figure.
Among the other items PG&E’s camp ruled suspicious: a $1.3 million mobile home reportedly destroyed just outside of Paradise, and 14 related claims seeking millions in damages and business losses reportedly suffered by a local group of vineyards and tasting rooms.
PG&E is putting forward these suspicious claims in an attempt to have the court “evaluate the extent to which a discount should apply to account for false or overvalued claims as part of the overall estimation process” for the wildfire insurance claims, which will play a major role in bankruptcy proceedings, PG&E’s attorneys wrote.
The claim for what would be one of the world’s largest and most expensive emeralds was first reported Monday by Bloomberg, which did not identify the claimants. The attached document requests in the court filing identified the supposed emerald’s owners as Larry and Alysia Biegler.
Public records available online connect the Bieglers with a P.O. box in Citrus Heights. Efforts by The Sacramento Bee to reach the Bieglers for comment were unsuccessful, with the listed phone number directing to a disconnected line in Magalia.
In last Friday’s letter, PG&E and its debtors requested proof via documentation of the property claimed to have been lost or damaged. In addition to the emerald, the Bieglers also allegedly filed four duplicate claims, each seeking $4.5 million, PG&E’s lawyers wrote.
PG&E’s letter to the judge included requests for the Bieglers to produce sales receipts or invoices for the Beleza Emerald; proof the emerald was in the Bieglers’ possession; proof it was physically located at their Paradise address at the time of the Camp Fire; documents relating to the emerald’s fair market value; proof of any potential insurance policy covering the gem; and any documented evidence, such as photos, proving the emerald was destroyed.
PG&E attorneys also requested proof of security measures installed to protect the emerald, “including but not limited to installation and maintenance of anti-theft systems, physical encasement of the Beleza Emerald, temperature and humidity control in the environment within which the Beleza Emerald was located and/or employment of security personnel.”
The matter was expected to go before Judge Donato in San Francisco on Monday; transcripts from Monday’s court proceedings were ordered sealed until February.
PG&E also seeks proof from the other six claimants, who entered their claims between July and October, according to the court filing.
On the other side, the committee of lawyers representing the fire victims objected “to PG&E seeking discovery from non-testifying victims in the estimation proceeding, which will estimate the value of the fire victim claims as a whole rather than on an individual victim-by-victim basis,” according to an email correspondence cited in PG&E’s filing.
“Asking these fire victims to produce financial back-up for their claims and be deposed on the details of this backup is unduly burdensome and should not be permitted,” the committee wrote in another court filing.
The new deadline to file claims for those who suffered losses in Northern California wildfires prior to Jan. 29, 2019, for which has been found liable PG&E, including the Camp Fire, is Dec. 31 at 5 p.m.
The Beleza Emerald, if it exists or existed, would rank among the largest and most expensive emeralds ever discovered. A 752-pound emerald valued at $309 million, and which stands over 4 feet tall, was discovered in Brazil in 2017, according to Forbes.
“Beleza” is Portuguese for “beauty.”
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PHOTO (for help with images, contact 312-222-4194): Camp Fire