Inmates seek more than $48 million in Fresno gas explosion lawsuit

FRESNO, Calif. (KFSN) -- More than $48 million in punitive damages -- that's what an attorney representing several inmates is asking for after the men were badly burned in a major explosion at the Fresno County peace officers gun range.

The amended lawsuit filed with the court demands Pacific Gas and Electric face big penalties because they failed to maintain the dangerous pipeline that exploded, critically injuring several workers. The suit also claims the company should have known better after being fined more than $1 billion for a deadly explosion five years ago in San Bruno.

Fidel Ramirez is bandaged and in a wheelchair inside the Fresno County Jail. He suffered third-degree burns on his arms and hands in the explosion. Skin from his legs was also grafted to other parts of his body, and his ear was also burned in the explosion 14 days ago.

Attorney Butch Wagner says PG&E knew better after a $1.6 billion fine that followed the San Bruno explosion in 2010.

"That fine was assessed to wake up PG&E, just like punitive damages are, to get them to start repairing and changing and making their pipeline safe so that future explosions won't occur," said Wagner.

The inmates were working at the Fresno County peace officers gun range when the sheriff's office says a public works employee was using a front wheel loader to smooth dirt. The cause of the explosion is still under investigation. Next week, a scientific analysis will begin on the pipe that blew up.

"They are going to be testing a section of pipe that is 21 feet long and another one that's almost as long as that to determine some of the reasons why there was such a fatigue on the pipe that it exploded," said Wagner.

The attorney representing four inmates said he is learning new details each day about the blast. Several agencies are separately looking into the cause.

PG&E issued a statement in part saying: "We know that the area around the incident had been leak surveyed numerous times, finding no leaks, and regularly patrolled since a centerline survey was conducted in 2013. We also know there was no call to 811 before work was done at the site."

The inmates who were working at the range are serving time on charges like DUI and possession of stolen property. While in custody, medical costs are being paid for by Fresno County. But damages claims have also been filed by the inmates against the county for the explosion.

The burned inmates are all set to be released from custody within the next few months. Their attorney says long-term affects caused by the explosion are still unknown.

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