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Dismissal of independent trucker’s injury suit affirmed

Bakken oil

A federal appeals court affirmed the dismissal of a lawsuit filed by a truck driver working on-site at a petroleum and natural gas exploration and production facility in North Dakota, saying the site owner was not liable because the driver was employed by an independent contractor.

In 2012, Benjamin Vandewarker was a truck driver for petroleum transportation firm Great Western Resources Inc., an independent contractor hired by Continental Resources Inc. to gauge wastewater levels in holding tanks at its well sites in North Dakota, according to documents in Benjamin William Vandewarker v. Continental Resources Inc., Wade Works LLC; Palmer Oil Inc., formerly known as Palmer Mfg. & Tank Inc., filed in the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis.


His tasks included hauling wastewater from the wells’ holding tanks and gauging wastewater levels. To do so, he climbed metal staircases adjacent to the tanks and measured the tanks’ water levels. On Oct. 18, 2012, while attempting to assess the water levels at one of Continental’s well sites, he fell 10 to 15 feet off one of the holding tank staircases, due to a loose bolt and disconnected bracket. He fractured several ribs and injured his back and shoulder, according to documents.


In June 2013, Mr. Vandewarker filed a suit against Continental in U.S. District Court in Bismarck, North Dakota, for his injuries, claiming negligence, gross negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress, according to documents. Specifically, he alleged that Continental “failed to properly install, inspect, and maintain the staircase, thus negligently failing to provide to Vandewarker equipment that was safe for its intended use and a safe environment in which to work.”


In deposition testimony, he contended that “Continental knew about the faulty condition of the stairs because he had told a Continental employee about it two days before his fall,” records state. Continental, in turn, did not dispute this fact but emphasized in a summary judgment motion that because Mr. Vandewarker was employed by its independent contractor, Great Western, Continental owed no duty to him.


Affirming the District Court’s decision in 2014, the three-judge panel of the appellate court cited the business contract between Continental and Great Western: “The contract does not provide that Continental will supervise, inspect, or direct Great Western’s work.”


“In fact, the express terms of the contract place the burden of safety on Great Western, stating: (Great Western) warrants that it is an expert in the work it will perform, that its employees and agents have been trained to follow all applicable laws, rules, and regulations and work safely, and that all of its equipment has been thoroughly tested and inspected and is safe, sufficient and free of any defects, latent or otherwise. (Great Western) acknowledges that Continental will rely upon these representations,” the appellate court wrote.


Officials with Continental and attorneys for the defendants could not immediately be reached for comment.


Representing Mr. Vandewarker, Marion Reilly, attorney with Hilliard Martinez Gonzales LLP in Houston, said the firm plans to file a petition for a panel rehearing. “We are disappointed with the decision and believe there are grounds for the court to reconsider its ruling,” she wrote in an email to Business Insurance.




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