Gas Leak Victims Seek Further Appellate Review in Restitution Row

LOS ANGELES (CNS) - Lawyers representing residents affected by the massive leak from the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility in Porter Ranch said today they want a state appeals court to review a ruling that residents lack legal standing to seek restitution from the utility.

The attorneys are asking that the case be transferred from the appellate division of Los Angeles Superior Court to 2nd District Court of Appeal to resolve “important questions of criminal law, several of which have not been previously addressed, as well as important criminal law issues that require uniform guidance.”

Southern California Gas Co. pleaded no contest in September 2016 to a misdemeanor count of failing to immediately report the gas leak, which began Oct. 23, 2015, and wasn't capped until mid-February 2016. Three other misdemeanor counts filed against the firm were dismissed as part of the deal.

At the sentencing hearing in November 2016, some residents complained that they were left out of the settlement talks between prosecutors and SoCalGas, and they were left unable to seek restitution.

“This is a case of huge significance, not only in terms of the number of people who were harmed by the worst, single natural gas blowout in history, but because the Victims' Bill of Rights is being undermined,” said Brian Panish, an attorney representing residents.

On Aug. 7, the Superior Court appellate panel upheld the trial court's acceptance of the plea agreement. The residents' lawyers say SoCalGas failed to warn people in Porter Ranch and adjacent communities that they were being exposed to the worst methane gas blowout in American history and therefore should pay restitution to the victims.

Lawyer Margaret Grignon, on behalf of the victims, said during arguments before the Superior Court appellate panel in May that the District Attorney's Office allowed the utility to plead no contest to one of the counts without including provisions giving residents a chance to submit restitution claims against the Gas Co.

But lawyer Cassandra Thorp, on behalf of the District Attorney's Office, argued that the victims had no standing to file an appeal because nothing in the Victims' Bill of Rights Act of 2008 gave crime victims such a right.

Recognition by the courts of such a right would invade the prosecution's exclusive powers to decide who and what to charge, what charges to offer for plea and what cases to try, according to Thorp.

Lawyer Thomas Peterson, on behalf of SoCalGas, agreed with Thorp, saying the residents' appeal had no merit and that they should not be able interfere with the prosecution's discretion to prosecute and resolve criminal cases.

The three-judge Superior Court appellate panel unanimously concurred with the District Attorney's Office and SoCalGas.

“Although a victim is vested with specified constitutional and statutory rights, he or she is not a party to the criminal proceeding (and) he or she does not have the general right of appeal,” Judge Tony Richardson wrote on behalf of himself and the other two judges.

The $4 million settlement requires SoCalGas to install and maintain an infrared methane monitoring system at the Aliso Canyon site -- estimated to cost between $1.2 million and $1.5 million -- and to retain an outside company to test and certify that the monitoring system and real-time pressure monitors to be placed at each gas well are working properly.

Under the agreement, a half-dozen full-time employees must be hired to operate and maintain the new leak detection systems 24 hours a day at a cost of about $2.25 million over the next three years.

The agreement also calls for the company to revise and adopt new reporting policies for actual and threatened releases of hazardous materials to the appropriate agencies, and mandates training courses on proper notification procedures for all of the utility's employees who work at natural gas storage facilities within Los Angeles County.

SoCalGas executives say sweeping safety improvements have already been made at Aliso Canyon, including the replacement of inner tubing in the wells and the installation of more than 40 miles of new steel piping.

Photos: Getty Images

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