Judge has heard enough in fatal Fresno shooting range explosion. He’ll rule soon

Pacific Gas & Electric Co. released this photo of the area where the natural gas line was ruptured Friday, April 17, 2015. PACIFIC GAS & ELECTRIC CO
Pacific Gas & Electric Co. released this photo of the area where the natural gas line was ruptured Friday, April 17, 2015. PACIFIC GAS & ELECTRIC CO Pacific Gas & Electric

A trial about whether jail inmates injured in a fatal gas line explosion in Fresno County should be classified as county employees resumed Wednesday in Fresno, but no witnesses took the stand as originally planned.

Instead of having more inmates and sheriff’s officials testify, lawyers for both sides jointly asked Judge Thomas J. Heslin to use the transcripts of deposition interviews with the inmates and officials, including one with Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims.

Heslin, a workers’ compensation judge, set deadlines for additional briefs and said he would notify lawyers on Jan. 25 about the status of the case and whether they must submit more evidence. If not, he’ll have 90 days to issue a decision.

One deposition with a jail commander is under seal because the official discusses security, said the county’s attorneys, David H. Parker and David Overstreet IV.

For the county, a lot is riding on Heslin’s decision because if the inmates are deemed to be employees, then the inmates can’t sue the county for negligence.

But lawyers for the injured inmates say they aren’t employees as defined by law.

“They didn’t receive compensation” for their work, said attorney Ara Jabagchourian, who represents four inmates and the family of Jeremias Espino, who died in the explosion.

Jabagchourian said the county alleges the inmates were compensated with special clothing, special housing, fresh air and extra visitation time with family, but inmates were not told about the benefits.

The inmates also did not volunteer for their work assignments, he said.

The explosion happened on April 17, 2015, when a county worker operating a front loader ruptured an underground PG&E gas line at the Sheriff’s Foundation shooting range near Herndon Avenue and Highway 99, just south of the San Joaquin River. The resulting explosion killed Espino and injured 12 others.

The state Public Utilities Commission determined Fresno County was responsible for the explosion and exonerated PG&E.

The inmates had been sent to pick up bullet casings and do other work. After the explosion, the inmates sued the county for damages in Fresno County Superior Court, while the county took legal action to get them recognized as county employees. The Superior Court cases are on hold.

The trial got off to a bumpy start in June when Heslin closed the proceedings at the request of the county’s lawyers, who made a motion to exclude all news organizations and the public.

The Bee challenged the motion on grounds that the case is of public interest and closing it would be unconstitutional. After a hearing in July, Heslin ruled in favor of The Bee and opened the proceedings.

In August, some inmates testified. Others were to testify over two or three days starting Wednesday until the lawyers opted to substitute depositions in lieu of testimony.

Regardless of how the judge rules, it’s likely that the losing party will appeal the ruling to the Fifth District Court of Appeal.

Lewis Griswold: 559-441-6104, @fb_LewGriswold
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