Court says oil company can be sued when worker injured or killed
OKLAHOMA CITY - The Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that oil and natural gas companies can be sued when a worker is killed or injured on the job.
The state’s highest court struck down a state workers’ compensation law that exempted oil and gas well operators and owners from lawsuits, including one filed by a worker who was fatally burned in 2014 at an Oklahoma County oil well site operated by Stephens Production Co.
The ruling was handed down one day after a fiery explosion at an Oklahoma gas drilling rig in southeastern Oklahoma left five workers dead.
The family of trucker David Chambers Sr. filed a lawsuit after he was dispatched to the oil well site in Crescent, Okla., to pick up wastewater and was severely burned on Oct. 6, 2014. Chambers, who was 59, died three days later. The family’s attorney, T. Luke Abel, said Chambers was “horrifically burned” and “never made it out of the hospital.”
Among other things, the lawsuit seeks at least $300,000 in damages and alleges that the company negligently operated the well and failed to warn Chambers of dangerous conditions at the site.
But attorneys for Stephens argued that a workers’ compensation law adopted by the Oklahoma Legislature in 2013 granted the oil well’s operator immunity from the lawsuit. The law was among a series of civil justice reform measures adopted by the Republican-dominated Oklahoma Legislature and signed into law by GOP Gov. Mary Fallin in 2013 that supporters said would help block frivolous lawsuits and reduce malpractice and liability insurance costs for doctors and businesses.
In an 8-0 ruling with one recusal, the Supreme Court agreed with a district court judge who ruled the statute is an unconstitutional special law designed to treat the oil and gas industry differently than other industries.
″… No valid reason exists for the special treatment of the oil and gas industry” under Oklahoma’s workers’ compensation system, the high court’s ruling states.
An attorney for Stephens, E. Edd Pritchett Jr., didn’t immediately return a call from The Associated Press seeking comment.
The lawsuit was sent back to the district court for additional arguments. Abel said the family hopes to “work toward a resolution” of the case.
“We’re pleased with the result,” Abel said.