Fresno County could cost itself money by claiming inmates as employees in pipeline explosion case

FRESNO, Calif. (KFSN) -- Fresno County's argument to save money in a lawsuit over the pipeline explosion at the sheriff's foundation shooting range will actually be very expensive in the long run, according to lawyers suing the county after the April 2015 explosion.

The Fresno County Sheriff's Office had inmates working at the shooting range.

One person died and 12 suffered injuries in the explosion, and almost right away, while they were in the hospital, the sheriff's office brought them paperwork for worker's compensation.

The fiery explosion is going to cost Fresno County, one way or the other.

When a county employee used a front loader to dig into a PG&E pipeline, one man died and at least a dozen inmates from the county jail got hurt.

It did not take long for employees from the sheriff's office to visit them in the hospital.

"What they did is they served the inmates with worker's compensation benefit papers, told the inmates to fill out the benefit papers," said Attorney Butch Wagner, who represents five of the inmates.

The paperwork was a trick, according to Wagner and Warren Paboojian, who also represents inmates.

They say the men really did not have a choice about joining the work crews.

The county never paid the inmates, but claiming them as employees limit the county's liability in court.

"The sheriff, Margaret Mims, has decided she's going to use these inmates as slave labor, which she has a right to do, but don't call them employees if you're not paying them," Wagner said.

A judge is now deciding whether this really is a worker's compensation case.

Attorneys for the county have argued the inmates got at least one benefit for joining the work crews: They got an extra half hour every week in family visits.

Wagner and Paboojian say it is a bogus argument, and the county better watch what it wishes for.

They say turning every inmate on a work crew into an employee could mean the county owes them all minimum wage for all the time they have put in.

"So it could cost the county, in the long run, a lot more than if they just play it straight in this case and treat these inmates as what they are - not employees," Wagner said.

A Fresno County public information officer sent Action News a response late Monday.

"It has been standard practice under Workers Compensation law in California to consider jail inmates working on public projects as being subject to worker's compensation protections," Jordan Scott wrote in an email. "Plaintiffs, in this case, have had their medical expenses paid by the County's Workers Compensation insurance based on this presumption."

The case goes back to court in October.
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