Wyoming Introduces Workers’ Comp Legislation

February 3, 2009

Legislation has been introduced in the Wyoming House that could hold oil and gas operators liable for their own negligence resulting in injuries and fatalities on their job sites in the state.

House Bill 273, introduced by Rep. Keith Gingery, R-Jackson, comes after three deaths in the oil patch within three weeks.

Wyoming courts have determined that big oil and gas operators owe no “duty of care” to contractor employees, such as drillers, mud-haulers and other service providers who work on their job sites.

But advocates of the legislation say operators play a large role in the day-to-day operations and safety of the rig sites, and they ought to be held liable for their own negligence.

“This bill says there is a duty of care, so a person has a right to take a case to court. Right now they get thrown out in a summary judgment,” said Riverton attorney John Vincent.

Oil and gas lobbyists say the bill is an attempt by trial lawyers to make more money off lawsuits.

Bruce Hinchey, president of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, said operators ask their contractors to meet certain safety requirements — drug testing, for example. But it is the contractor itself that is responsible for its employees.

Most contractors pay into the state’s workers’ compensation fund, which renders them immune to lawsuits even if they are found to be grossly negligent in an accident.

“It’s ironic that they would bring something like that, to line their pockets with lots of money,” Hinchey said.

Oil and gas operators, such as Shell Oil and Exxon Mobile, typically only pay into the state’s workers’ compensation program for their own direct employees — not for the contractor employees who work on their job site.

Karen Mitchell, a paralegal from Riverton who has worked many rig injury and fatality cases, said there’s a public misperception that families of killed workers are taken care of by Wyoming’s workers’ compensation program.

“These multinational corporations aren’t required to pay into workers’ comp when they hire independent contractors, even though they have a company man on location who calls all the shots out there 24-7, supposedly enforcing corporate safety policies,” Mitchell said.

Hinchey said he believes the bill would subject anybody who hires a contractor to liability — small businesses who hire an electrician, or a homeowner who hires someone to mow his lawn.

“They’re trying to get around the law. Any person that hires anybody would be liable if they got hurt,” Hinchey said.

Laurie Goodman, who is lobbying for the bill on behalf of worker advocates, said that’s a gross misrepresentation of the bill.

According to the bill’s language, the operator or worksite owner would be held liable for its own negligence only if it “retains the right to direct the manner of the independent contractor’s performance or assumes affirmative duties with respect to safety.”

“Our reaction to that is, ‘Are you in charge of that site or not?’ You have a man onsite 24-7 responsible for safety,” said Goodman, adding that that’s very different than the average small business owner who hires a third party contractor to install new wiring or equipment.

“It is disingenuous for major oil companies to try to frighten small business into opposing this bill in order to continue big business from being held accountable,” Goodman said.

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