The Aftermath of Oilfield Accidents
July 27, 2018 @ 10:14 pm
Updated on: March 5, 2021
It’s no secret—working in the oilfield is dangerous business. Conditions are unforgiving, and accidents can accrue a long list of health complications and life-changing issues to deal with. Responsibility for safety drifts like a fog among parent companies, contractors, subcontractors and independent vendors.
When oilfield accidents happen, courts and companies wring their hands—and balance sheets—debating maritime law versus OSHA requirements. The ugly word negligence is frequent. Meanwhile, injured workers or their grieving families are left struggling to make ends meet.
Often, the only answer is to legally force a company to take responsibility. Here are two recent lawsuits that prove that individual workers and their families can prevail.
Michael Gilmore v. Unit Drilling Company and Unit Texas Drilling, LLC
Who: Michael Gilmore worked for Accurate Valve Services, a contractor at an oil drilling site near Dilley, Texas. Unit Drilling Company and Unit Texas Drilling, LLC, were responsible for operating, maintaining and controlling the site.
What Happened: In 2011, Gilmore was replacing a door seal on a blowout preventer. To reach it, he should have been in a man basket. Instead, other employees had Gilmore stand on a pallet raised by an unlicensed forklift driver. The site superintendent wanted to rinse the door during the job. After employees began rinsing the door, the superintendent ordered the forklift driver to back up without a spotter and with Gilmore still standing on the raised pallet. When the driver reversed the forklift, the machine severed a cable on the ground that supported an industrial-sized metal pulley. The metal pulley fell and crushed Gilmore’s hand. Gilmore required emergency surgery, and while he was able to keep his hand, he—a tradesman—would never regain proper use of it.
Request: In March of 2017, Gilmore sought damages for his permanent injury. The defendant company asked the jury to award Gilmore $50,000. Gilmore’s attorney requested between $4 million and $6 million.
Award: In May, a jury found Unit Drilling 74-percent negligent, Accurate Valve 21-percent negligent and Gilmore 5-percent negligent. The jury decided on a $9 million award:
- $35,000 for past physical pain and mental anguish
- $160,000 for past loss of earning capacity and $450,000 for future loss of earning capacity
- $100,000 for past disfigurement but nothing for future disfigurement
- $30,000 for past physical impairment but nothing for future physical impairment
- $250,000 for past medical expenses but nothing for future medical expenses
- $8 million in exemplary, or punitive, damages due to the companies’ gross negligence
Tonya Kelley v. Electrochem Solutions, Inc.
Who: Tonya Kelley was the widow of Garland “Rickie” Kelley, an oilfield services worker. Excell Battery Corporation manufactured and Electrochem Solutions marketed and sold the battery involved in Kelley’s death. Professional Directional Enterprises, Inc., Kelley’s employer, was a drilling company with locations in Texas, Louisiana, Virginia and Wyoming.
What Happened: In July of 2011, Garland Kelley was testing a lithium thionyl chloride battery—a battery about 4 feet long and 2 inches in diameter. The battery exploded, and Kelley later died from his injuries, leaving behind a wife and three children. Professional Directional Enterprises claimed that employees had been given instructions and blamed Kelley for failing to follow them. The family contended that the battery was defective due to the improper practice of heating it to extend its life for an oilfield downhole-drilling tool. The company had collected evidence from the scene, but at trial it was missing.
Request: Alleging negligence and gross negligence, Kelley’s widow initially sought up to $50 million in damages.
Award: In February of 2015, a jury found Professional Directional Enterprises 80-percent negligent and Excell Battery Corporation 20-percent negligent. The jury decided on a $29 million award:
—$4 million in compensatory damages
—$25 million in punitive damages
While some oil and gas accidents result in high-profile jury awards, many other personal injury cases are resolved quietly. They never reach a courtroom jury because companies operating within the industry would rather settle out of court—compensation in exchange for confidentiality.
While the legal action is quiet, that action forces them to face the full extent of their accountability. Take, for instance, a derrickman who reported to work to find a drilling pipe stuck in the well’s bore hole. One ill-advised shortcut later, he was unconscious 100 feet in the air, with four skull fractures, a broken jaw, shoulder and knee injuries, and a nearly severed ear with permanent hearing loss.
A directed attempt to use an air hoist had failed when the cable snapped. All parties denied responsibility, including the lease holder who had ordered the shortcut. It took 2½ years of intense legal battling, but the end result was a confidential settlement for the derrickman.
Getting Fair Compensation
The pressures of time and profit can make workers, supervisors and even heads of companies make unwise decisions that expose others to unacceptable risk. Accidents happen, and in the oil and gas industry, even small slips or misjudgments can have devastating results.
The lawyers at Morrow, Morrow, Ryan, Bassett & Haik understand just how difficult dealing with a serious injury at work can be, and we’re ready to help you. If you work within the oil and gas industry and have been harmed—or if a loved one has—contact us through our website, or call 1-800-356-6776.