A lawsuit filed on behalf of a Colorado man who died when a Quinto, Oklahoma oil rig exploded on January 22, 2018, makes new claims of negligence in addition to the safety failures cited in earlier complaints. According to a story from the Associated Press, “Parker Waldridge's family alleges in a Dec. 4 amendment to their wrongful death lawsuit that a ‘cascade of errors and multiple departures from safe drilling practices’ by drilling company Patterson-UTI Drilling” resulted in the blowout that killed Waldridge and four coworkers.
As previously discussed on this blog, the family of Cody Risk had filed suit alleging unsafe drilling practices, including the decision to use mud weight that was less expensive and “not adequate to create a barrier to prevent the influx of pressure into the wellbore.”
This blog also noted that the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration had cited three defendant companies, Patterson-UTI Drilling, Crescent Consulting LLC, and Skyline Directional Drilling LLC, for safety violations that had exposed workers to explosion hazards, and had issued fines totaling more than $118,000.
Now the Waldridge lawsuit alleges that “at least two days before the explosion, the rig superintendent, manager, and several other Patterson employees received email results of a laboratory test warning of problems with the rig's accumulator, a piece of safety equipment that closes part of the well to prevent an uncontrolled release of fluids. The warnings even came with a ‘skull and crossbones graphic (literally).’"
An initial report from the Oklahoma Corporation Commission had said an uncontrolled release of gas had ignited, and that an employee had attempted to shut down the well but could not. Waldridge’s lawsuit cites a determination by the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board that on the day of the blast “the accumulator wasn't able to fully close the well.”
The defendant company that “had the most direct control over the drilling operations and emergency response to changing conditions” was Patterson Drilling, which “failed to use ordinary care with respect to its conduct," the lawsuit alleges. Plaintiffs in the lawsuit question why the blowout preventers remained open after indications of uncontrolled flow and allege that the Patterson crew was “obligated to undertake all of the required steps” to shut down the well.
The owner of the well, Red Mountain Energy, seems to concur. Named as a defendant in this and earlier lawsuits, Red Mountain had hired Patterson to conduct drilling operations, but now says Patterson's "gross negligence led to a terrible tragedy." Attorneys allege that Patterson has the “has [previously] been told by federal regulators that its lack of concern for safety created a seriously dangerous environment for its workers,” while also alleging that Patterson “has been cited more than 110 times for serious safety violations” in the last decade.
Patterson has countered Red Mountain’s "inflammatory" accusations and blames that company for the well's poor design and drilling program. Patterson claims to have drilled “under [Red Mountain’s] direction, supervision and control."
From the standpoint of litigation strategy, a plaintiff’s case can benefit greatly when defendants start pointing fingers at each other. Evidence that a plaintiff would otherwise have to drag out of a single defendant in protracted (and expensive) discovery motions might be handed over on a silver platter, as one defendant attempts to scapegoat the other.
The laboratory test results, as depicted, almost certainly strengthen the case for negligence against Patterson. A jury might also decide that continuing to drill after receiving such an ominous warning amounted to gross negligence, which would open the door for punitive damages to be awarded.