A civil case against Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims related to the 2015 PG&E pipeline explosion was stopped Monday to allow for a debate about whether the proceedings should be open to the public.
Mims is accused of sending jail inmates to work at the privately owned Fresno County Sheriff's Foundation shooting range. Three years ago, a horrific underground explosion there left one inmate dead and 12 others injured.
The case started Monday with Mims expected to take the stand this week. But Judge Thomas J. Heslin closed the trial to the public after the county objected to having a Bee reporter in the audience.
Fresno attorneys David H. Parker and David Overstreet IV, who represent the county, made the motion to exclude all news organizations from attending the trial, saying that confidential information about the inmates would be revealed at the hearing.
But lawyers for the inmates — Ara Jabagchourian, Lazaro Salazar, Warren Paboojian and Nicholas "Butch" Wagner — told Heslin their clients waived any confidentiality, saying the hearing was a matter of public interest.
Heslin closed the hearing anyway.
With the reporter out of the courtroom, Heslin began hearing testimony. But after the first witness — Efrain Garcia, an inmate injured in the blast — testified, Heslin stopped the trial and held a hearing to inform The Bee that it could file a response to the county's objection.
Heslin said he will rule on the county's motion to exclude the media on June 25. Until then, court proceedings were suspended.
Paboojian said the county's motion was another stalling tactic.
"Our clients have waited three years to get justice," Paboojian said. "And any delay in justice is no justice."
Parker and Overstreet declined to comment. But in their motion, they say The Bee never made a prior written request to attend the trial. They also said the trial will include "confidential information previously sealed by the Court."
Jabagchourian, however, called the motion "malarkey," arguing the public has a right to attend the trial so they can know how the county is spending taxpayers' dollars. Paboojian said the motion shows the county wants to keep secrets from the public.
"Why doesn't the county want the public to know what's going on?" Paboojian said.
Parker, however, said he respects the media, but just wants to make sure news agencies follow the rules of court by filing a written request. But Jabagchourian and Paboojian said the law does not require the public or the media to file a written request to attend a public hearing or trial. A written motion is required if the media records the trial or photographs or shoots video of it. In this case, the Bee reporter had planned to just listen to the evidence and take notes.
The Bee plans to fight the county's motion: "We do not understand how the public could be excluded from court hearings that obviously deal with a matter that is of intense public interest," Joseph Kieta, editor of The Bee, said. "We will vigorously oppose the county attorneys' motion to keep this secret. The public has a right to hear the testimony in that courtroom, some of which will be from an elected official — Sheriff Mims."
Fresno County requested the trial, being held in the Hugh Burns State Building near Fresno City Hall, in an attempt to shield itself from multimillion-dollar lawsuits from the inmates by saying the inmates fall under the state Workers' Compensation program.
Heslin, an administrative law judge with the state's Workers' Compensation program, said he consulted with the presiding judge and legal counsel before suspending trial until the media issue is resolved.
If the county succeeds in getting the inmates declared county workers, the medical bills of the injured inmates will be paid through the state program, greatly reducing the county's financial burden. In addition, the inmates wouldn't be able to sue the county for general damages. But it would not preclude the inmates from suing Pacific Gas & Electric Co., which owns and maintains the pipeline.
The inmates' lawyers say the inmates were never county employees, and that the county's legal maneuver is a sneaky way to save money by avoiding liability in the April 17, 2015, pipeline explosion in northwest Fresno.
Mims is expected to be a key witness at the hearing, lawyers for the inmates said. The injured inmates also will testify.
The explosion near Herndon Avenues and Highway 99, just south of the San Joaquin River, occurred while a county worker was driving a front loader on a road atop a berm that was being maintained. At the time of the explosion, Mims told reporters that the loader driver was not digging, but flattening dirt on the berm. The inmates were on the adjacent shooting range where they had been doing property maintenance. One inmate died in the hospital, while the loader driver, two deputies and nine inmates were injured.
Fresno County Counsel Dan Cederborg has said that "jail inmates who are performing work on sheriff's work crews are subject to workers' compensation coverage in most circumstances" under state law. The inmates don't have to be declared employees, he said.
But a trial brief by the injured inmates says: "The evidence will show that the injured workers were placed in a special work group and were required to work both inside and outside jail, At no time did any of the injured workers volunteer to work in this special group. In fact, at least one inmate was told he had no choice after refusing to go to the special unit."
In court papers, the county contends the inmates were compensated with extra family visits at the jail. But the trial brief says: "There is no evidence that his extra time was actually provided to any of the injured workers and many of the injured workers were not aware that this extra time was even provided to them."
After a full day's work, the inmates were waiting to leave when the explosion happened. A fireball severely burned several inmates. Inmate Jeremiah Espino, 52, of Sanger died from his injuries while in the hospital.
Espino's three children and his wife filed a claim, seeking $25 million from the county. The other claims total more than $20 million.
In February 2016, the state Public Utilities Commission determined Fresno County was responsible for the explosion. The 27-page commission report found no wrongdoing on the part of PG&E, which owns the pipeline.
Damage to the gas line and lost gas came to about $1.95 million, the report said.
The inmates' lawyers who have taken legal action against PG&E say they don't believe the pipeline was properly covered by dirt, although a company hired by PG&E says the gas line was covered by 4.7 feet of dirt when it was struck.