In what is a timely decision due to the recent explosion, the Oklahoma Supreme Court has declared that oil and gas companies can be sued for personal injuries. In the past, oil and gas companies in Oklahoma were protected from lawsuits. However, an accident in 2014 has led the Oklahoma Supreme Court to nullify the protection that user to cover oil and gas companies.
The Statute That Protected Oil & Gas Companies
In 2013, the Republican-dominated Oklahoma legislature granted oil well operators complete immunity from lawsuits. The rule was placed with other statutes in a “civil justice reform” system, a system whose goal was to stop “frivolous lawsuits” from entering into the justice system. Most laws in the reform were aimed at disrupting medical malpractice and liability insurance costs for medical practitioners and other businesses, but one statute granted immunity to oil well operators and owners. This law has been in place since 2013, but the Supreme Court has since decided to throw out the old statute.
The Decision of the Supreme Court
The Oklahoma Supreme Court was coincidentally in the midst of debating a ruling on the statute before the oil rig explosion occurred on January 22. The Supreme Court was investigating the protective rule because of a lawsuit that sprung from an oil well incident that occurred in 2014. In the lawsuit, a family seeks financial recovery from Stephens Production Co. for the death of their father and husband. The man left for an oil well site to pick up wastewater when he was severely burned; he succumbed to his wounds three days later. The family was attempting to hold Stephens accountable, but company lawyers hung to the protective 2013 statute that disallowed filing suit against oil and gas well operators.
However, the Oklahoma Supreme Court overturned the statute. After an 8-0 ruling against the statute, The Court claimed that, "No valid reason exists for the special treatment of the oil and gas industry." This decision stands in agreement with an Oklahoma District Court judge’s statement that the statute is unconstitutional and inherently gives preferential treatment to the oil and gas industry.
This ruling will lead to the Stephens Production Co. having to continue to fight the lawsuit surrounding the 2014 fatality. Additionally, this decision will give those affected by the Patterson-UTI oil rig explosion the option to pursue financial recovery through a personal injury lawsuit.