After Six Years, Still No Justice for Families in North Dakota Oilfield Lawsuits

Oilfield Workers silhouetted by sky

Oil and gas field work is dangerous, with some of the highest fatality rates of any industry. The Bakken oilfield, located on both sides of the Montana – North Dakota border, is one of the worst when it comes to worker death and injury.

Since 2006, at least 74 people have died, an average of one death every six weeks. North Dakota overall is the deadliest state in the country when it comes to worker deaths, and has held this dubious distinction for several years. Compensation cannot bring back a loved one, but it can provide some closure and financial help to the victim’s survivors. Litigation is seldom quick, but in North Dakota, families who lost loved ones are waiting for justice for more than half a decade after their family member’s deaths.

Oilfield Fatalities and Motor Vehicles

In 2013, North Dakota’s workers’ compensation insurer, WSI, dealt with 13 fatalities in the oil and gas industry, five of which involved motor vehicle deaths. The following year, there were nine deaths, the majority of which – six – involved a motor vehicle. By 2015, the number of dead skyrocketed to 18, of which 11 were motor vehicle-related. Lower oil prices beginning in 2016 meant fewer workers in the oilfields, and the number of fatalities dropped considerably, to three in both 2016 and 2017 and four in 2018.

Reasons for the Delay

Why are these cases taking so long? In other states, similar cases are often resolved within two years, but in North Dakota, many cases are still going on five or six years after a victim’s death. Part of the reason lies in short staffing at the courthouse, while the sheer complexity of some cases triggers delays. Roughly 60 percent of oilfield worker deaths occur on the job site, while 40 percent happen on the road. When civil suits are filed in the latter situation, the courts often rule that the only legal remedy is a workers’ compensation claim.

The Death of Casey Austin

Among those waiting for justice is Brenda Austin, whose son, Casey, 22 died in 2013 in a truck driven by his supervisor en route to work. The truck slid into a ditch and the cab quickly filled with snow. Although Austin thinks much more should have been done regarding the investigation into her son’s death, she is glad that the county regraded the road at the crash site, making the ditch less steep. She and her husband had erected a large metal cross at the site.   

Liability Insulation

There’s another reason these cases take so long, and that’s because the large oil companies have constructed elaborate corporate webs so that when fatalities and accidents occur, they are not the ones held financially liable. Instead, it is those insurance companies covering contractors – the bottom of the hierarchy – that end up paying. That means the oil companies are rarely held accountable for the accidents killing and maiming employees. This lack of accountability also means the oil companies have little incentive to ensure their work sites are safe. In short, these oil and gas field workers are expendable, except to the families they’ve left behind.

If you or a loved one are injured on a pipeline job, you may be eligible for significant financial recovery. Our Corpus Christi-based Williams PLLC oilfield injury attorneys represent injured pipeline workers in Texas, North Dakota, the Gulf of Mexico and across the nation. For a free, confidential case evaluation, contact Williams PLLC today. (361) 866-5535 or Connect Online.

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