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Court rejects intentional negligence claim by injured oil field worker

Posted On: Aug. 6, 2015 12:00 AM CST

A Texas man who lost a thumb while working in the Oklahoma oil fields has lost his bid to sue outside of the state’s exclusive remedy rule for workers compensation, but the company for which he was a contract worker still may face a premises liability claim, a federal appeals court has ruled.

Jesus Martinez, an employee of Smith Contract Pumping Inc., was contracted by his employer to work on a pump jack at a oil well owned by Oklahoma City-based Angel Exploration L.L.C. when his hand was pulled into moving belts and his right thumb was severed, court documents show.

The pump jack was not protected by safety guards, which Mr. Martinez argued violated federal regulations and industry standards.

He received workers comp benefits from Smith Contract Plumbing, but also sued Angel Exploration on grounds that the company was intentionally negligent — an exception to Oklahoma’s exclusive remedy provision — for failing to install safety guards around the pump jack to maintain reasonably safe premises, court documents show.

The U.S. District Court in Oklahoma City granted summary judgment dismissing the intentional tort and premises liability claims, saying Oklahoma law states that “landowners owe no duty as to open and obvious dangers.”

On appeal, a three-judge panel of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver on Tuesday voted unanimously to affirm the lower court’s dismissal of the intentional tort claim, but cited a 2014 Oklahoma Supreme Court ruling in a separate case, Erica Wood v. Mercedez-Benz of Oklahoma City>/em>, for remanding the premises liability issue to the lower court for reconsideration.

“Oklahoma now recognizes an exception to the open and obvious doctrine where the landowner should have reasonably foreseen the harm,” the appeals court ruled.

The appeals court said Mr. Martinez’s intentional tort claim failed because there was no evidence that Angel Exploration knew he would be injured.

“It has been the law for some time that workers compensation is an exclusive remedy in an action by the injured worker against the employer,” Bob Burke, an Oklahoma City-based workers comp attorney, said in an email. “The only exception has been the intentional tort action.”

The case is “definitely going to have more impact on premises liability law in Oklahoma than workers comp,” said Trey Gillespie, Austin, Texas-based senior workers comp director at the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America.