(HOUSTON, January 27, 2020) Two people were killed in a gas explosion in northwest Houston at a manufacturing warehouse on Friday the 25 at around 4:30 a.m. After the explosion the Houston Fire Department reported that 48 people had to be sheltered and 18 people were sent to local emergency rooms for injuries.
Earlier this month, the Supreme Court of Texas issued a written opinion in a Texas car accident case involving the question of whether the defendant employer could be held liable for the allegedly negligent actions of an employee. Ultimately, the court concluded that the lower court improperly granted the defendant employer’s motion for summary judgment, finding that a genuine issue of fact remained as to whether the employer was vicariously liable. Thus, the court reversed the lower court’s judgment and remanded the case.
The Facts of the Case
The plaintiff worked for a company that drilled oil and gas wells. On this particular job, the plaintiff and the rest of the crew were put up in company housing about 30 miles away from the drilling site. A contract between the plaintiff’s employer and the owner of the land where the wells were to be drilled stated that the supervising crew member would be compensated for driving the crew members to and from the drilling site.
Thus, for this particular job, the plaintiff’s crew supervisor provided the plaintiff and the rest of the crew with transportation to the drill site. One day, the supervisor was involved in a car accident that killed two members of the crew and injured the plaintiff. The plaintiff filed a personal injury lawsuit against the employer, arguing that it was vicariously liable for the supervisor’s negligence in causing the accident.
In Oiltanking Houston, LP v. Delgado, an employee of an independent contractor hired to work on a pipe by Oiltanking died in an explosion. He was welding a flange on a 24-inch pipe used to transport crude oil. Hydrocarbon fumes ignited, and an explosion occurred, killing the employee and injuring two others.
The employee’s family sued Oiltanking, the owner of the premises and the hirer of the independent contractor, for wrongful death. The victims also sued for personal injuries.
At trial, testimony was provided about the procedures used, the aspects of the process that Oiltanking controlled versus the aspects controlled by the independent contractor, and the events that led up to the explosion. Under Chapter 33 of the Civil Practice and Remedies Code, Oiltanking designated the independent contractor as the responsible third party. However, the judge struck the designation when the evidence closed. Due to this, the jury was asked whether Oiltanking’s negligence was the legal cause of the explosion.
In Cerny v. Marathon Oil Corporation, a couple sued an oil corporation and others for private nuisance and negligence claims. They said that toxic emissions from the companies’ oil and gas operations near their home had caused injuries to their health and property.
The case arose when the couple moved into a fixer-upper in 2002. They leased mineral rights in their land to the predecessor of the oil corporation defendant. Subsequently, the defendant was authorized to use the surface of their land for oil and gas operations and to drill horizontal wells. The defendant didn’t put wellheads or infrastructure on the couple’s property, and they received consistent royalty payments.
In 2013, they sued the oil corporation and another party, alleging that they were negligent in their oilfield operations and these operations worsened existing health problems and caused new ones. Due to the oilfield operations, their property wound up with sink holes, and their home’s foundation was damaged. Their property was also surrounded by other wells and production facilities owned by the defendants, and these radically changed their rural lifestyle. They pled negligence, negligence per se, gross negligence, and private nuisance.
Diamond Offshore Services Limited v. Williams is a Jones Act case that arose when the plaintiff injured his back while trying to fix machinery on an offshore oil rig operated by a Texas defendant in Egypt. The plaintiff was a mechanic who had worked for the defendant two different times and in different capacities for about a decade.
One afternoon, before he was scheduled to come back to the U.S., a driller told him that the elevators had failed and he needed to repair them. He worked on the elevators for 30-40 minutes. He bent at the waist to scoot the elevators, which weighed hundreds of pounds, into his work area. While working, he felt a sharp lower back pain. When he was done, he saw a doctor who told him to rest. The next day, he felt back discomfort when bending in his bed.
The man’s back continued to hurt when he got home, and the defendant referred him to an orthopedic surgeon whom he saw 10 days later. The orthopedic surgeon was independent but had seen patients off and on for the defendant. The man told the doctor that he hurt his back on a rig in 2006, two years before the incident at issue in this case, and that he had leg pain.
In the recent Texas appellate case of In re Wyatt Field Service Company, the court considered whether a new trial was warranted in connection with two plaintiffs’ serious personal injuries that arose from a refinery accident. At the refinery, crude oil is turned into gasoline. Tar is a byproduct of the process. The tar is broken down into pure carbon by a flexicoker unit. The carbon is called “coke.” The coke is heated and returned as a source of heat for the reactor.
Exxon Mobil performs maintenance on the flexicoker unit every two or three years. As part of the process, the heater has to be cooled down through spray from nozzles. The coke builds up in the nozzles and clogs them. The spray nozzles are replaced with dummy nozzles. The worker must pull the dummy nozzle out, and an Exxon Mobil employee closes the gate valve to keep steam and coke inside. Two employees of LWL, Inc. were removing the dummy nozzles in 2011, when one came out too far and the gate was not shut. Coke and steam were sprayed on them, causing burn injuries.
Later, Exxon Mobil investigated and found that the safety chain was in the wrong location and that Wyatt had reattached the safety chain in a previous maintenance session. The two employees of LWL sued Wyatt and ExxonMobil. ExxonMobil settled, so the trial proceeded only against Wyatt as the defendant. Continue reading →
At a time when onshore oil and gas drilling continues to rise, many questions remain unanswered about the safety of “fracking,” or hydraulic fracturing, a method of oil extraction that has grown increasingly popular.
Hydraulic fracturing is a method used in Texas and across the United States to access oil in onshore areas where it would otherwise be too difficult to drill. The process involves injecting high-pressure fluid into a well bore in order to create small fractures in deep rock formations. The small fractures then allow oil or gas to escape and reach the well. The hydraulic fracturing method was first used in 1947, and it has since spread widely across the country. Many proponents of the method praise the fact that it allows the United States to continue to produce domestic energy despite earlier beliefs that there were very few reachable oil reserves remaining.
At the same time, critics of hydraulic fracturing claim that it poses a threat both to the environment and nearby communities, and to the oil and gas workers themselves. One area of concern is the type of chemicals used in the high-pressure solution. While proponents of the method claim that chemicals are just a tiny percentage of the overall solution, the fact is that significant chemicals are still being used. Yet the companies with the most hydraulic fracturing wells have failed to disclose at least one chemical used in the process, making it impossible to get an accurate sense of the method’s effect on the groundwater that it comes in contact with, and therefore on its community impact. Still, several communities located near hydraulic fracturing wells have complained that their water was contaminated by fracturing fluid. At least Texas is one of five states that require public records on any fluid spills.
Recent data from the federal Bureau of Labor and Statistics has revealed that of all of the oil field deaths throughout the United States, Texas accounts for 40% of them. That statistic covers the time period 2007 to 2012, when 663 oil field workers were killed overall. This period is significant because 2007 marked the beginning of the hydraulic fracturing — also known as “fracking” — and onshore drilling boom.
The number does not account for the workers who were seriously injured. The Houston Chronicle found that in 2012 alone, 79 workers lost limbs, 82 workers were crushed, 92 workers suffered from burns, and 675 workers suffered broken bones in accidents on the job site. One attorney representing some of the injured workers described it as “like the Wild West out there.” Meanwhile, 65 workers lost their lives in 2012 — 60% more than in 2011, and representing a 10-year high.
The reasons appear to be due to a combination of company indifference to safety and failure of federal oversight. While some well service companies at least made an effort to install safety programs, others did not implement anything. Meanwhile, federal officials have gone an estimated 22 years without implementing safety standards and procedures for onshore oil and gas drilling. By contrast, after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill offshore, in the Gulf of Mexico, improvements were made in offshore safety regulations. This included sending out more inspectors who had received special training, and tighter oil and gas safety regulations.
On December 7, 2013, a jury in South Texas found that Heckmann Water Resources Inc., an oil patch supplier near San Antonio, Texas, negligently failed to maintain a tractor-trailer truck that caused the death of Carlos Aguilar. The lawsuit stems from a May 2012 accident in which Aguilar, a U.S. Army veteran, husband, and father of seven, was doing work at the Eagle Ford Shale oilfield when a drive shaft broke off from under a Heckmann tractor-trailer traveling at 67 mph. The 20-pound part crashed through the windshield of the pickup truck that Aguilar was riding in, killing him.
Aguilar’s family filed suit against Heckmann and one if its employees, alleging that Heckmann failed to properly maintain the tractor-trailer. The jury ultimately found the company negligent and awarded Aguilar’s family (his parents, wife, and seven children) $281 million, which included $181 in compensatory damages and $100 million in punitive damages against Heckmann. The jury did not find Heckmann’s employee negligent. Heckmann’s Scottsdale, Arizona-based parent company, Nuverra Environmental Solutions, plans to appeal the decision. The verdict is one of the largest verdicts in Texas history.
Texas is by far the largest producer of crude oil and natural gas in the United States. In addition, the Eagle Shale Ford area continues to grow. There are currently 265 oil rigs operating in Eagle Ford Shale, compared to only 158 operating rigs in 2010. This means more oilfield workers and likely more accidents both at the oilfield rig and in and around the area involving trucks transporting supplies. In fact, according to the Texas Department of Transportation, the largest recent jumps in fatal traffic accidents are those involving commercial vehicles.
Navigating Work Place Injuries
With more and more drilling activity occurring across the Eagle Ford Shale and the economy doing better here in San Antonio, we are seeing more and more individuals injured on construction sites, work sites and oil well drilling sites.
Workplace injuries and deaths make up a large part of litigation handled by many personal injury attorneys. According to the United States Secretary of Labor, every year nearly 4 million people suffer a workplace injury, from which some never recover.