Oklahoma Supreme Court Rules in 2014 Oilfield Death Case

The same week 5 workers died in a gas drilling rig explosion in Pittsburg county in Oklahoma, the State Supreme Court ruled oil and gas companies can be sued when a worker is killed or hurt on the job. The ruling came in another fatal well-site accident near Crescent and centered on whether a sub-contractor should be considered an employee of the companies involved.

The ruling came in the case of Strickland v. Stephens Production Company. It involved the Oct. 6, 2014 death of David Chambers, an employee of RDT Trucking, Inc who was sent to an oil-well site in Crescent to pick up waste water. The owners and operators of the well were Stephens Production Company and Stephens Production Company Continental Properties, LLC.

Chambers was working on or around a device known as a “heater treater” and at some point, he was severely burned and died. His surviving daughter, Glory Strickland filed a wrongful death lawsuit in Oklahoma County District Court. The suit alleged “negligence for failure to properly operate, maintain, and inspect the well and failure to properly warn of dangerous conditions at the well site.”

The defendants filed to have the suit dismissed on the grounds they were immune under the Oklahoma Administrative Workers’ Compensation Act. The judge denied the motion to dismiss after Strickland argued the immunity was an unconstitutional special law and violated “the constitutional principle of separation of powers.” The judge agreed. So did the Supreme Court in its ruling issued this week.

 

“Thus, certainty regarding immunity from liability is not a distinctive characteristic of the oil and gas industry that warrants special treatment. SPC has not presented any evidence specific to the oil and gas industry that would warrant differential treatment or furnish a practical and reasonable basis for discrimination,” stated the Supreme Court in its ruling.

The justices said the case was no different than one decided by the court more than 15 years ago where the “Legislature singled out one specific industry for special treatment under the workers’ compensation system.”

“This Court disapproved of such special treatment in that case because no valid reason existed for the distinction. We adhere to the teachings of Goodyear Tire today and find no valid reason exists for the special treatment of the oil and gas industry as displayed by the last sentence of § 5(A).

Affirming the decision were Justices Noma Gurich, Yvonne Kauger, James Winchester, Tom Colbert, James Edmondson and Douglas Combs.  Justice John Reif concurred while Justice Patrick Wyrick recused himself from the case.

 

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