Fresno County lawyers want PG&E explosion trial closed. Press freedom versus privacy at stake

Fresno County lawyers want PG&E explosion trial closed. Press freedom versus privacy at stake

Fresno Bee

By Pablo Lopez

June 25, 2018

The right to privacy versus freedom of the press collided Monday when lawyers for Fresno County and Sheriff Margaret Mims argued to exclude the news media and public from a workers compensation trial probing a 2015 PG&E pipeline explosion that left one jail inmate dead and 12 others injured.

Fresno attorneys David H. Parker and David Overstreet IV, who represent the county, made the motion to exclude all news organizations and the public, arguing that workers compensation trials are unlike civil and criminal proceedings which are open to the public.

Parker said California’s Labor Code and the Legislature give workers compensation judges — in this case Judge Thomas J. Heslin — the authority to close a trial to protect the privacy rights of employers and employees.

To close a trial that’s of public interest would be unconstitutional, Owdom argued.

In addition, Paboojian and Jabagchourian said their clients have waived their right to privacy in order for the public to learn how the Sheriff’s Office spends taxpayers dollars.

After hearing an hour of testy arguments, Heslin said he will have a written ruling by Aug. 16, when the workers compensation trial is scheduled to resume.

The trial is probing the April 17, 2015, explosion near Herndon Avenue and Highway 99, just south of the San Joaquin River, when a county worker driving a front loader accidentally hit a PG&E pipeline.

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.

In the aftermath of explosion, Fresno County was sued for negligence by the inmates. They contend the Sheriff’s Office made them work at the Fresno County Sheriff’s Foundation shooting range against their will and without compensation.

But in a move to shield itself from the multimillion-dollar lawsuits, the county contended that the inmates fall under the state Workers’ Compensation program because they were compensated with additional family visits.

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.

On Monday, the inmates’ lawyers said their clients were never county employees and that the county’s workers compensation maneuver is a sneaky way to avoid liability. In addition, Paboojian and Jabagchourian said after the explosion, sheriff’s detectives went to the hospital to get the injured inmates to sign workers compensation claims. Because the inmates were seriously injured, Paboojian said, they never filled out the claims, so detectives, at the county’s direction, did it for them.

Fresno County requested the workers compensation trial, which began June 11 in the Hugh Burns State Building across from Fresno City Hall. Before testimony began, Heslin granted the county’s motion to exclude news agencies and the public over the objections from a Bee reporter who cited the Constitution and the First Amendment.

After hearing one witness testify, Heslin sought a second opinion from the presiding judge and suspended the trial to give lawyers for The Bee and the inmates the opportunity to argue why the trial should be open to the public.

Monday’s hearing got cantankerous because a vast majority of the county’s argument was not written in its motion, which is typically required in court proceedings. Because lawyers for the inmates and the Bee were caught off-guard, Paboojian asked the judge to exclude the county’s argument “for violating the rules of court.”

Parker, however, said it was not his intent to “ambush” his opponents. Instead, he said, the court did not order him nor Overstreet to put his argument in writing.

In the county’s argument, Parker said a vast majority of workers compensation trials are opened only to parties that are affected by the outcome, because of privacy concerns. But Tusan, who represents the inmates, said in his 45 years of litigating workers compensation cases he has never excluded the public from a workers compensation trial.

Parker also argued that a reporter must filed a written petition to attend the trial. The Bee reporter never did, he said.

Lawyers for the inmates, however, said Parker’s argument only applies to a reporter who wants to use a video camera or a audio recorder — not to a reporter who uses a pen to jot notes or just listens to the proceedings. But Parker argued that the petition requirement also applies to reporter who records the proceedings with pen and paper.

The inmates’ lawyers also pointed out that the county’s lawyers even cited in its motion the ruling case on the subject: NBC Subsidiary (KNBC-TV), Inc., v. Superior Court, which generally gives the media and public access to civil and criminal trials. But Parker and Overstreet argued the ruling does not specifically address whether workers compensation trials should be open to the public.

In addition, Overstreet and Parker said the trial has to be closed because some documents pertaining to inmate classification have been deemed confidential. But Jabagchourian said the county has never filed a motion to seal the documents nor has the court made a finding that the documents are confidential.

If the documents are confidential, the judge can clear the courtroom on a limited basis to hear the evidence, Jabagchourian and Paboojian said.

Before the hearing ended, Parker said he respects The Bee and the First Amendment. But Paboojian said, “It’s shameful what the county is doing here. It’s clear the county doesn’t want residents to know what’s going on.”