United States District Court, D. Montana, Billings Division
BRADLEY P. OTTO, as personal representative of the estate of Blaine P. Otto, deceased, Plaintiff,
NEWFIELD EXPLORATION COMPANY; NEWFIELD PRODUCTION COMPANY; and NEWFIELD EXPLORATION MID-CONTINENT, INC., Defendants.
OPINION AND ORDER
P. WATTERS U.S. DISTRICT JUDGE
the Court is a Motion for Summary Judgment filed by
Defendants Newfield Exploration Company, Newfield Product
Company, and Newfield Exploration Mid-Continent, Inc.,
(Newfield). (Doc. 37). Newfield argues there are no genuine
issues of fact and it is entitled to judgment as a matter of
law. For the reasons discussed below, the Court DENIES
Newfield's Motion for Summary Judgment.
Otto (Otto) was employed by a company that provided tank
inspection services, among other things, to Newfield on a
contract basis at various well sites in the Bakken Shale Oil
Field. (Doc. 1). On July 18, 2013, Otto was found dead on the
catwalk of an oil storage tank at a well site in McKenzie
County, North Dakota. (Doc. 38, ¶ 1). The well site was
operated by Newfield. (Doc. 38, ¶ 2). At least one of
the oil storage tank's hatches was open when Otto was
found dead. (Doc. 59 at 5).
estate filed suit, alleging Otto died of exposure to deadly
hydrocarbon vapors due to intentional, reckless, and/or
negligent conduct by Newfield. (Doc. 1). Newfield disputed
the cause of Otto's death, alleging Otto died of natural
causes. (Doc. 38, ¶3).
presence or exact concentration of hydrocarbon vapors at the
well site at the time of Otto's death are unknown because
no measurement was taken during the investigation. (Doc.
55, ¶¶ 27-28). The oil's Material
Safety Data Sheet states the oil produces deadly hydrocarbon
vapors. (Doc. 53-7). A NIOSH-OSHA (National Institute for
Occupational Safety and Health and Occupational Safety and
Health Administration) hazard report states in detail the
hazards faced by workers who manually gauge oil tanks. (Doc.
36-5). The introduction to the report states:
Workers at oil and gas extraction sites could be exposed to
hydrocarbon gases and vapors, oxygen-deficient atmospheres,
and fires and explosions when they open tank hatches to
manually gauge or collect fluid samples on production,
flowback, or other tanks (e.g., drip pots) that contain
process fluids. Opening tank hatches, often referred to as
"thief hatches, " can result in the release of high
concentrations of hydrocarbon gases and vapors. These
exposures can have immediate health effects, including loss
of consciousness and death.
(Doc. 36-5 at 5).
estate retained Dr. Tee L. Guidotti (Dr. Guidotti) and Mr.
Edward R. Ziegler (Ziegler) as liability experts. Dr.
Guidotti is a physician, qualified as a board-certified
specialist in internal medicine, pulmonary medicine, and
occupational medicine, (Doc. 36-1 at 1). He is also a retired
professor of Occupational and Environmental Medicine at the
George Washington University Medical Center, where he was
Chair of the Department of Environmental and Occupational
Health of the School of Public Health and Health Services and
Director of the Division of Occupational Medicine and
Toxicology, Department of Medicine, School of Medicine and
Health Services. (Doc. 36-1 at 1). He has worked with the oil
and gas industry for over 35 years and is currently an
international consultant. (Doc. 36-1 at 1).
Guidotti's opinion is that Otto's death was caused by
exposure to deadly hydrocarbon vapors. (Doc. 36-1 at 8). Dr.
Guidotti formulated his opinion after estimating Otto's
level of exposure and reviewing numerous documents and items
of evidence, including the autopsy report, the OSHA fatality
report, and information disclosed during discovery. (Doc.
36-1 at 1-2). Based on the evidence, Dr. Guidotti listed four
possible causes of Otto's death: (1) inhalation of
hydrocarbon vapors; (2) depleted oxygen levels due to
displacement by hydrocarbon vapors; (3) inhalation of
hydrogen sulfide; and (4) natural causes. (Doc. 36-1 at 3-4).
Dr. Guidotti then proceeded to eliminate each cause based on
its likelihood, concluding inhalation of hydrocarbon vapors
was the most likely cause of Otto's death. (Doc. 36 at
3-8). The Court previously found Dr. Guidotti's opinion
was both relevant and reliable. (Doc. 75).
is a petroleum and natural gas engineer, a registered
Professional Engineer, and a Certified Safety Professional.
(Doc. 36-4 at 4). He is also trained as an OSHA 500 Program
Instructor. (Doc. 36-4 at 4), Ziegler has worked in the oil
and gas business for over 35 years. (Doc. 36-4 at 4).
opinion is that Newfield's conduct was grossly below any
industry standard. (Doc. 36-4 at 19). Ziegler formulated his
opinion after review of numerous documents and pieces of
evidence, including safety regulations, the OSHA file, and
information disclosed during discovery. (Doc. 36-4 at 3). The
Court previously found Ziegler's opinion was both
relevant and reliable. (Doc. 75).
Summary Judgment Standard.
court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that
there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the
movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law."
Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A party seeking summary judgment always
bears the initial responsibility of informing the court of
the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of
the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and
admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any,