Safety and OSHA News

Contractor’s thumb severed by unguarded machine: Can he sue?

Who is responsible for a contract employee’s at-work injury is evolving in many states. Reason: More and more state courts are recognizing an exception to standard premises liability law in cases like this one. 

Angel Exploration owns and operates a number of wells in Oklahoma. It outsources day-to-day management and servicing of its wells to Smith Contract Pumping (SCP).

Jesus Martinez worked for SCP, checking on Angel’s wells.

One day, Martinez found the engine on one well wasn’t running. Martinez restarted the engine and while he was there, tightened the belts which he’d noticed were slipping. The belts were unguarded on this particular well. Some of Angel’s engine belts had guards and some didn’t.

While he was waiting to be sure everything was working properly, Martinez dropped a wrench. As he bent down to pick it up, his sweatshirt got caught in the belt and his thumb was severed. The thumb was later partially amputated.

Martinez received workers’ comp benefits from SCP, but he also sued Angel for negligence, alleging:

  • the lack of guarding was an unreasonably dangerous condition
  • Angel failed to perform reasonable inspections of its property
  • Angel failed to warn or take precautions to protect Martinez, and
  • Angel failed to reduce the risk posed by the dangerous condition.

A U.S. district court found the danger of the unguarded belt was open and obvious, therefore Angel didn’t have a duty to warn SCP workers like Martinez about the situation. Martinez appealed, and the U.S. 10th Circuit Court recently handed down a decision.

Court recognizes new exception

The circuit court said, given Oklahoma case law at the time of Martinez’s injury, the district court made the correct decision. However, while the appeal was moving through the system, the Oklahoma Supreme Court issued a ruling that created a new (for Oklahoma) exception to the open and obvious doctrine.

The state’s highest court concluded that when a person is injured due to an open and obvious condition, the owner of the premises can be sued if it was reasonable to anticipate harm because of the condition.

The court made this ruling in the case (Wood) of a catering employee who went to a car dealership to help with an event. The night before the event, sprinklers had turned on in sub-freezing temperatures, creating ice. The catering employee slipped on the ice and was injured.

The Oklahoma Supreme Court found the icy conditions were foreseeable and the dealership had a duty to take steps to correct the situation.

Here’s a key sentence in that decision:

“The plaintiff’s presence and exposure to the hazardous icy condition was compelled to further a purpose of the dealership.”

In other words, the catering employee was required to cross the ice because of her employment.

The 10th Circuit found this case represents “a significant shift in Oklahoma premises liability law … [the case] aligns Oklahoma with an emerging majority of states to reconsider the open and obvious doctrine.” This is a “clear trend” among states, the court noted.

So the Oklahoma Supreme Court created a potential exception allowing liability when a premises owner should have anticipated the harm despite the open and obvious nature of the condition.

The circuit court noted there are similarities between Wood and the case involving Martinez and Angel. Martinez had to be at the well engine to restart it. The advantage (employment) of being there outweighed the risk (no machine guard).

The Tenth Circuit remanded the case to be decided under the new exception to the open and obvious doctrine established by the Oklahoma Supreme Court.

It’s still not a slam dunk for Martinez. The state’s highest court specifically said its opinion in Wood “should not be construed as abrogating the open and obvious defense in all cases.”

Where the rubber meets the road for companies: More and more functions are being outsourced these days. If a contract employee is injured on your property because of an open and obvious danger that you should have known was likely to cause an injury, you may have an expensive lawsuit on your hands.

What do you think about this case? Let us know in the comments.

(Martinez v. Angel Exploration LLC, U.S. Circuit Crt. 10, No. 14-6086, 8/4/15)

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