It is no secret that Oklahoma depends upon the oil and natural gas industries for jobs, tax revenue and many indirect contributions to its financial well-being. In 2013, the Republican-controlled state legislature enacted a law intended to protect these industries from civil lawsuits for damages for personal injuries. In a recent unanimous decision, the Oklahoma Supreme Court struck down the law because it unlawfully contravened the state workers’ compensation system. The ruling should give optimism to workers in Connecticut and many other states.
The incident involved a truck driver who arrived at an oil well site to pick up waste water. He was severely burned in a fire and died three days later. He recovered workers’ compensation benefits from the company that owned the truck (the decedent’s employer), but his family commenced a lawsuit against the oil company whose negligence was the cause of the fire.
Attorneys for the oil company argued that the 2013 statute granted immunity to the oil company from just such a lawsuit. The trial court, an intermediate appellate court and the state Supreme Court all rejected this argument and declared the law to be unconstitutional. The Supreme Court had the last word: “No valid reason exists for the special treatment of the oil and gas industry” under Oklahoma’s workers’ compensation system. The case was returned to the trial court for further proceedings, most of which will center on the family’s damages.
The case is not a legal precedent in any state other than Oklahoma, but the court’s reasoning is very powerful and can be invoked where ever analogous statutes exist. Another court could easily invoke the 5th and 14th amendments to the U. S. Constitution to declare a similar statute to be a violation of the equal protection clause.
Source: U.S. News & World Report, “Court: Oil Company Can Be Sued When Worker Injured or Killed,” Tim Talley, Jan. 23, 2018