Fresno County Supervisors Reject Pipeline Claims

The Fresno Bee

July 10, 2015

Eleven claims filed against Fresno County for its alleged involvement in the gas line explosion at the Fresno Sheriff’s Foundation will likely be rejected by supervisors when the board meets on Tuesday.

The claimants include injured inmates who were working at the site April 17 when a front loader driven by a county employee apparently struck a Pacific Gas & Electric gas line, causing an explosion that injured a dozen people and killed one inmate. The county employee was on a road formed over a berm that sat above the shooting range near Highway 99 and the San Joaquin River in northwest Fresno.

Four of the claims were filed on behalf of family members of the dead inmate, Jeremiah Espino. The claim filed for his three children and his wife seeks $25 million from the county. Two other victims, Rosario Lara and Victor Castaneda, also filed claims seeking $20 million. Both men were seriously burned in the explosion, said Ara Jabagchourian, lawyer for the two men and Espino’s family.

Jabagchourian said Thursday that both Lara and Castaneda suffered “substantial burns.”

He said their job that day was to pick up shell casings from the shooting range, and they weren’t assuming the same risk as the driver of the front loader, Ismael Arreazola. He said the men had finished their work and were lined up awaiting a ride back to the jail when the explosion occurred.

“This front loader caused something to happen,” he said.

A report released by Exponent, a firm hired by the California Public Utilities Commission, said the front loader struck the gas pipeline, causing it to explode.

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.

Claims filed by lawyer Warren Paboojian on behalf of inmate Efrain Gutierrez and Christine Gutierrez, also will be considered by supervisors. Paboojian’s claim includes information that the county failed to call the toll-free 811 information line to find out if there was a pipeline in the area. Paboojian’s claims don’t specify an amount sought.

Butch Wagner, a lawyer who filed one claim and expects to file at least two more, said he also expects his claims to be rejected.

“In the 33 years I’ve been practicing, I’ve never seen Fresno County accept any claim ever,” Wagner said.

Arreazola’s lawyer, Amanda Riddle, said she hasn’t yet filed a claim on behalf of her client. She has two years from the date of the incident to file.

Arreazola is covered under the county’s workers compensation coverage. The county maintains the inmates are, too. Wagner said if it’s determined the inmates are covered, it would limit the county’s financial exposure.

Two other claims also are on the list for rejection, filed by Union Pacific Railroad and Travelers Insurance. Union Pacific is claiming $277,500 in damages to railroad tracks because of the explosion. Travelers Insurance, acting as an agent for Midstate Barrier, Inc., claim $29,006 in damage to a freight truck owned by one of the insurer’s clients.

Claims are filed to offer an opportunity for both sides to reach a settlement. When claims are rejected, lawyers can then file lawsuits based on the claims.

The investigation into the pipeline explosion continues, and the report by Exponent is not final, PUC officials said earlier this week.