The Fresno County Sheriff’s Foundation for Public Safety, which runs the shooting range adjacent to where a county employee struck a Pacific Gas & Electric Co. gas pipeline in April, has filed a claim against the county seeking reimbursement for damages and legal costs to defend itself in lawsuits over the pipeline explosion.
The foundation says it is protected from legal liability at the shooting range through a contract with Fresno County.
In 2007, the county reached an agreement with the Fresno County Peace Officers’ Association, which previously operated the range at 7633 N. Weber Ave. The agreement held the association harmless along with “its officers, agents and employees from all liability in addition to any and all losses, claims actions, lawsuits, damages, judgments of any kind whatsoever.”
The foundation’s attorney maintains that the contract with the association extends to the foundation.
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The agreement also said that each organization is “responsible for the negligence of its own employees.”
More than a dozen claims have been filed against the county by people injured in the pipeline explosion, PG&E, a railroad operating near the shooting range and an insurance company. The explosion killed an inmate worker and injured 12 other people, including the driver of the front loader.
The Sheriff’s Foundation’s claim said the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office retained the county’s public works department to operate a loader at the site. That loader is alleged to have caused the explosion.
The foundation’s claim, filed by Modesto lawyer Neil Callahan, said the organization was “unaware that the county was going to operate a loader and that any digging was to be performed by or for the tenant.”
(The Fresno Sheriff’s Foundation) was unaware that the county was going to operate a loader and that any digging was to be performed by or for the tenant.
Neil Callahan, lawyer for Fresno Sheriff’s Foundation for Public Safety
The Fresno County Peace Officers’ Association relinquished ownership of the range about a year before the explosion, and the Fresno Sheriff’s Foundation took control of the site. Fresno County sheriff’s deputies and officers have used the site for firearms training for about 40 years.
Since the explosion, the foundation has been named in lawsuits filed against the county. The foundation’s claim seeks reimbursement for damages and for legal costs to defend itself against the lawsuits.
In October, Fresno County was fined $101,125 by the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration for five violations and its role in the explosion. The county has appealed the fines.
Cal-OSHA’s report says the county equipment operator severed the 12-inch gas line, leading to an explosion that shot flames 150 feet into the air and threw the worker from the front loader. The employee was on a road formed over a berm that sits above the shooting range near Highway 99 and the San Joaquin River.
The Cal-OSHA report describes the work being done on the site as “re-establishing and widening an existing access road which had eroded and building up access ramps on the east and west side of the access road.”
In the appeal, the county claims that the types of violations – “serious, willful (and) repeat” – were incorrect, that the penalty was unreasonable, and that worker safety rules were not violated.
Fresno County supervisors also will likely reject five other claims stemming from the pipeline explosion.
(Mr. Arreazola was directed) to take part in ultrahazardous activity on property where the county knew a gas line was buried without inspecting the property.
Amanda Riddle, lawyer for driver of the front loader
Ismael Arreazola, driver of the front loader, was among those who filed a claim. He was burned over 40 percent of his body, according to the claim filed in October by his Millbrae lawyer, Amanda Riddle.
The claim said Arreazola was directed “to take part in ultrahazardous activity on property where the county knew a gas line was buried without inspecting the property, ensuring claimant’s safety, and calling 811” – the telephone number for the agency that identifies where gas lines are buried.
Four other claims were filed by inmates who were working at the site when the explosion occurred.
The four men, Kao Hang, Edgar Torres, Fidel Ramirez and Gabino Pizano, all claim they are owed more than $10,000 for the injuries, pain and suffering they endured. Those injured also cited ongoing medical costs and a loss of potential earnings because of their injuries, said their claims, which were filed by Fresno lawyer Butch Wagner.
“This gas explosion resulted in severe and permanent injuries and damages to the claimant(s) including scarring,” Wagner wrote in the claim.
A 260-page report prepared by Exponent, a consulting firm for the California Public Utilities Commission, said in July that the “PG&E line ruptured when it was struck by a front loader that was operating in the area at the time of the incident.”
The Exponent report adds: “The significant gouging, scraping and deformation present at the rupture location could only have been caused by contact with the front-loader bucket.”
The Exponent report was not the final word on the PUC’s investigation before fault is determined, agency officials said.
The claims must be filed before plaintiffs can file lawsuits.