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Texas Jury Verdict for Defendant Affirmed in Refinery Accident Case

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.

At trial, the defendant didn’t disagree that the safety chain was improperly installed, that the condition was unreasonably dangerous, or that the plaintiffs hadn’t been warned. However, it disputed that it was the contractor that had replaced the dummy nozzles or safety chains in the previous maintenance session. The plaintiffs argued that Wyatt was solely liable and that Exxon Mobil was not liable and their employer had no responsibility for the accident.

The jury found that Wyatt and LWL were not negligent. The jury found that Exxon Mobil had exercised control over how the work was performed and was negligent. The jury found damages for the plaintiffs, but neither could recover because Wyatt was the only defendant, and it was found not negligent and Exxon Mobil had already settled.

The plaintiffs asked for a new trial, and the judge signed an order for a new trial on the grounds that the jury’s finding that Wyatt was not negligent was against the great weight and preponderance of the evidence and that Wyatt had repeatedly put into evidence information that the injured plaintiffs had received compensation elsewhere.

Wyatt filed a petition for a writ of mandamus to challenge the new trial order. The appellate court explained that in order to get mandamus relief to have the new trial order vacated, Wyatt would have to show an abuse of discretion by the court and no adequate remedy through an appeal. In order to show abuse of discretion, a trial judge must provide a specific reason why a new trial is legally appropriate.

In granting the new trial, the trial court had found that the safety chain was installed incorrectly, it created an unreasonably dangerous condition, Wyatt installed the safety chain incorrectly, and the two plaintiffs weren’t warned and had no reason to know of the danger. The court found that a witness for Exxon Mobil had found that Wyatt did reinstall the dummy nozzles and safety chains in 2008. No other contractor was paid. An expert testified similarly. Even Wyatt’s expert had testified that it was more likely than not that Wyatt had been assigned the job of putting the safety chains back and had done this. There were no documents showing that the safety chains had been moved between the 2008 maintenance and the 2011 accident. The nozzles were located 40 feet up, and there was no reason for others to go look at them unless they were authorized. Wyatt argued that if Exxon Mobil employees were property trained, they would have seen the improper installation and could have stopped work until the safety chains were correctly placed.

Among other things, the appellate court found that the jury could have interpreted the evidence differently, giving greater weight to the evidence that favored Wyatt. It vacated the order for a new trial and ordered the trial court to render judgment on the jury’s verdict in favor of Wyatt.

If you are hurt in an accident at a refinery or in an oilfield, it’s important to retain attorneys who understand the oil and gas business and who have experience in these challenging cases. The experienced San Antonio oil and gas accident attorneys at Carabin Shaw may be able to help. Call our office for more information at 1-800-862-1260.

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