Back to Webinars Schedule
Kurt Zaner

Kurt Zaner

$30,000,000 Verdict – Oil & Gas Explosion

TLU Icon April 2, 2024 5:30 PM||TLU n Demand

Register NowZoom Icon

In December 2019, Plaintiff Steve Straughen was standing on top of a water tank at a fracking site when the tank exploded, catapulting him 27 feet away from the tank. He suffered several injuries, including an open book pelvic fracture, a right fibular head fracture, a right tibial plateau fracture, a right pilon fracture, 14 fractured ribs, and a mild traumatic brain injury. Steve ultimately needed a below-the-knee amputation and has more surgeries ahead. Steve, a retired Air Force veteran, also lost his dream career in oil and gas and now works a desk job in IT. At the time of the explosion, Steve was married and had two young children. He wanted a large family but after the explosion, he can no longer have children due to his injuries.

Defendant BHS had one job: to provide the water and oil tanks on the site. These tanks were supposed to be vapor-tight, but BHS failed to properly inspect the tanks and delivered them with pin holes, corroding liners, broken nipples, and an open pipe on top of one of the oil tanks (oil tank 1). These openings allowed air into the system, creating an explosive mixture that ignited and caused one of the tanks to explode. BHS asserted strong non-party defenses and comparative fault defenses, as well as causation defenses, arguing that several other parties (including the Plaintiff) were at fault for causing the explosion.

The case dealt with the following issues:

1. Negligence:

a. Defendant BHS denied liability entirely, instead casting blame on several non-parties, including Skyline (the site’s operator and Steve’s employer), Schneider (the company man overseeing everything on site), and Edge (the owner of the site). Defending these non-parties was further complicated by the fact that Schneider was originally one of the named defendants in this case. We settled with Schneider before trial, but our own liability expert still blamed Schneider for the incident and the fact of the settlement came in at trial.

b. BHS employees testified that they always inspected the tanks, even if they failed to keep proper paperwork. We emphasized deficient and missing inspection forms, as well as showing that it wasn’t just bad paperwork, it was a systemic problem at BHS. BHS employees were overworked, understaffed, and untrustworthy.

2. Challenging causation: The tanks arrived to the fracking site full of air, so we had to prove that Skyline properly removed the air in the tanks before connecting them to the flare. BHS pointed to evidence that Skyline didn’t follow their own protocols for doing this correctly. This was a highly complex causation case that we needed to find a way to explain to the jury in terms they could understand. We used hundreds of demonstratives as well as good old-fashioned butcher paper drawings to drive home the basic concepts.

3. Nonparty fault: We argued the cause of the explosion was the open pipe of an oil tank. The problem is, nobody from Skyline checked to make sure the the open pipe on top of oil tank 1 was capped, even though Skyline employees were opening a hatch right next to the open pipe hourly. Steve testified himself that he would have checked to make sure the open pipe was capped if he had been up there.

4. Comparative Fault: On the night of the incident, Steve and his co-worker heard strange pinging noises, and Steve’s co-worker said he smelled sulfur and saw smoke. According to BHS, these warning signs should have prompted Steve to use stop work authority and to get as far from the tanks as possible. Based on this, BHS pushed for an “assumption of the risk” jury instruction. We argued the opposite: that Steve heroically prevented a far more catastrophic explosion by closing the valve between water tank 1 and oil tank 1.

5. Large Damages:

a. We argued for about $8 million in economic damages, based on Steve’s medical expenses, life care plan, past lost wages, and loss of future earning capacity (based on his skyrocketing career in oil and gas). We also asked for $32 million in non-economic and physical impairment damages. BHS challenged these damages on several fronts, arguing that they were mostly speculative and unsupported by the medical records. BHS suggested around $2 million in economic damages, claiming Steve had a very good recovery. Defendant brought in a competing MD life care planner (arguing for 500K LCP), competing economist arguing for lower NPV, and competing vocational expert. The jury ultimately awarded us $10 million, more than we asked for.

b. We brought in a variety of real people from Steve’s life – friends, co-workers, his prosthetist – to help paint the picture of how Steve’s life had been dramatically changed for the worse.

In the end, the jury apportioned no fault to Steve. The jury determined that BHS was 80% at fault, Skyline was 15% at fault, and Schneider was 5% at fault, and it awarded $15 million in non-economic damages, $10 million in economic damages, and $5 million in physical impairment damages. We had asked for $40 million total.

Read more on CBS NEWS.

If you can't attend Live, Watch On Demand