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 missing. Officials said Tuesday they had recovered the remains of all five workers who were unaccounted for.
The family of trucker David Chambers Sr. filed a lawsuit after he was dispatched to the oil well site in Crescent, Oklahoma, to pick up waste water 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 telephone 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.
The Supreme Court ruling is the latest in a series of decisions that have invalidated civil justice laws adopted by the Legislature that critics said created barriers to court access in violation of the state constitution.
"They need to ensure that the legislation they pass is constitutional," Abel said.
Bob Burke, a workers' compensation attorney in Oklahoma who lectures nationwide on the subject, said in an email he is not aware of any law passed in any other state that gave special treatment to any industry.
Burke said Tuesday's ruling was particularly significant following the tragic deaths of the five workers in Quinton.
"Before today's decision, all employers in the state could be sued....except oil and gas operators," Burke said.
A total of 15 workers were killed in Oklahoma while working in mining, quarrying and oil and gas extraction jobs in 2014, the year Chambers was fatally burned, including six that involved transportation incidents, according to the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration reports that from 2003 to 2010, 823 oil and gas extraction workers were killed on the job in the U.S. — a fatality rate seven times greater than the rate for all U.S. industries. Hazards that led to the deaths of oil and gas workers included explosions and fires, falls and chemical exposures, according to OSHA.