Two organizations named in several lawsuits along with Fresno County for their apparent roles in a deadly pipeline explosion in northwest Fresno last April want the county to cover their legal and damages costs.
Claims by the Sheriff's Foundation for Public Safety and Fresno County Peace Officers Association contend they should not be liable for costs or damages related to the explosion that killed one jail inmate and injured 12 others working at the Fresno Sheriff’s Foundation shooting range at 7633 N. Weber Ave.
In its claim, the Fresno County Peace Officers Association says it transferred its interest in the shooting range to the Sheriff’s Foundation in June 2014.
The driver of a front loader working for Fresno County was building up a berm above the shooting range when the vehicle accidentally struck a high-pressure gas line, causing it to blow up, according to investigations by Pacific Gas & Electric Co. and the state Public Utilities Commission.
The association’s lawyer, David Petrie, said paperwork on the ownership transfer never was completed. The association has been named in more than a half-dozen lawsuits.
Petrie said title to the property was transferred but not filed. He said he understands why lawyers for the injured filed lawsuits that named the association.
In the association’s indemnification claim against the county, Petrie said the association “was not in possession or control” of the property at the time of the accident. He said the association was not present when the accident occurred “nor retained any control over any aspect of management.”
The association wants the county to pay any damages, its attorney fees and costs, the claim said. He said the association has had to absorb legal costs, which could eventually reach $50,000.
They are not sure how this lawsuit will pan out and who will bear the lion’s share of the financial fallout.
Warren Paboojian, Fresno lawyer representing an injured inmate
Several of the inmates, along with the county and the county worker driving the loader, have sued PG&E, claiming improper maintenance of the pipeline. The county has sued PG&E, and PG&E has sued the county, as has the Fresno Sheriff’s Foundation for Public Safety. Union Pacific Railroad filed suit in the case because of damage done to its tracks next to the range.
In the claim by the Fresno Sheriff’s Foundation for Public Safety, Modesto lawyer Bradley Post said the foundation wants the county to cover its legal fees, costs and expenses for all lawsuits from injured employees and inmates, as well as railroad and pipeline damage.
The foundation’s claim said it was unaware that the county was going to operate a front loader on the site the day of the explosion and that digging was going to be done on behalf of the tenant, the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office.
The foundation’s claim also said that the Sheriff’s Office had retained a county employee to do the work that caused the explosion and was under contract with the foundation to use the range.
In October, California’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined the county $101,125 for the pipeline incident.
Four serious violations led to fines of $25,000 each and one general violation for failure to call the “dig-alert” 811 phone number to find out if there were underground utilities in the project’s vicinity, with a $1,125 fine.
In February, 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 Pacific Gas & Electric Co., which owns the pipeline. Damage to the gas line and lost gas came to about $1.95 million, the report said.
Fresno County Counsel Dan Cederborg said county supervisors rejected claims from both groups affiliated with the Sheriff’s Office.
“Depending on the very complex circumstances in this case, that could possibly change in the future,” he said. “But, so far, the county is not (defending them).”
Ara Jabagchourian, a San Mateo lawyer who represents three injured inmates and whose lawsuit was enclosed in the foundation’s claim, said the foundation wants the county blamed because a county employee “was driving a bulldozer on our land and it’s their fault.”
Fresno lawyer Warren Paboojian, who represents one injured inmate, said the foundation and association are covering their bases because “they aren’t sure how this lawsuit will pan out and who will bear the lion’s share of the financial fallout.”
Butch Wagner, a Fresno lawyer representing six injured inmates, said the claims were expected.
He said several suits are working their way through the legal system, but the most important will determine whether the inmates were county employees, as the county has claimed. If the county’s contention is supported by a judge, that could significantly reduce financial awards to the injured and the family of the man killed in the blast, he said.
A hearing is scheduled in April.