Oil company settles suit brought by widow of crew supervisor

family of oilfield worker killed in accident“Tomorrow will be a year since the passing of [my husband]. A year since I heard his voice, a year without that smile, a year of sadness and anguish. A year of unanswered questions.”

Our client wrote those words on April 2, 2015. A year before, her husband had been working for an oil and gas company in New Mexico as a crew supervisor. The company is well-respected and known for operating safely, compared to other oil companies in the area. The wreck that killed her husband on April 3, 2014 left our client and the company with many unanswered questions.

Can a company keep people safe if they drive A 100,000-lb truck?

On April 3, 2014, our client’s husband had rigged down a well with his crew and they were driving on mountainous roads in New Mexico, headed to their next well site. The crew drove in a convoy, with our client’s husband driving the mobile workover rig. These workover rigs are massive, oversized trucks with six axles. Oil derrick towers attach to the back of the truck and fold over horizontally and are secured to the roof of the truck when the truck is in motion. It is a very large, very top-heavy truck, weighing almost 100,000 lbs.

The company entrusted their employees to choose their travel routes, without any system in place to ensure they were taking the safest route rather than the shortest route. The company had never tested these workover rig trucks to find out if taking a truck that big, that top-heavy down inclines was even safe. And the company hadn’t tested the brakes on the truck since February, despite the fact that due to their own maintenance policies, that truck’s brakes were historically inspected at least once a month. The company’s policies were inadequate to keep people safe when operating a 100,000 lb truck. Months before this crew supervisor’s death, another employee of the same company was killed by the same type of rig truck in Louisiana.

The day a family’s world imploded

On the day of the accident, our client’s husband had been supervising a crew in New Mexico that had been using this truck to work over a well. He had worked for this company for over 20 years, working his way up from a roughneck to crew supervisor. He was well-respected and well-liked in the company. He had a commercial driver’s license and a spotless work history. The company trusted him so much that they asked him to help train other truck drivers. When he was informed the crew’s truck driver had been called to another job site the day they were supposed to move the workover rig truck to the next well site, he made the decision to drive the truck.

They took the same route out of the well site that they’d  taken coming in. It took them along a windy, steep mountainous state highway. They were traveling in a convoy, with the rig truck in front and the rest of the crew traveling behind. The rig truck had slowed to 5 mph, per the company’s trucking rules, to go around a bend. The next thing the crew saw was the truck gaining speed, the brakes smoking, and then nothing except for a severely damaged guardrail.

As the crew rushed down the side of the ravine to reach their supervisor, our client was taking their oldest daughter to the salon to prepare for her junior prom. Their other two kids were in school. When the crew reached their supervisor, they called 911, but it was too late. Our client got the call and her daughter had to take the wheel and drive them home. The family was heartbroken.

Grieving a good man

Over 850 people attended the funeral. The company had to shut down several yards in multiple states because so many of his coworkers wanted to pay their respects.

Our client, who graduated from nursing school shortly after her husband died, relied on the support of her close friends to help her stay strong and keep moving forward in the days and months after his death. Their oldest daughter stopped playing basketball her senior year of high school - she couldn’t bear not seeing her dad’s face in the stands at games - and still grieves her father’s death. Their son and youngest daughter didn’t take the news well and are still struggling with the loss of their father.

Our client contacted us shortly after his funeral. She’d heard so many stories from his coworkers and the company, and multiple colleagues had confided with her that there was a safer route they could have taken on the day of the accident. She wanted to know why the company he’d been so loyal to for over 2 decades hadn’t made sure their crews were taking the safest route. She wanted answers - money was not her angle. She could provide for her family, but she couldn’t get the company to tell her why they hadn’t done anything to prevent her husband from dying.

She testified in her deposition that:

“[The company] can give me all the insurance and disability and workman’s comp, but that doesn’t help me sleep at night to know who was with him, to know that this could have been prevented, to know that if they would have just took two to three more hours or an extra day, that he would have made it home… All I wanted was answers.”

Questions that only lead to more questions

The answers she sought led us to filing a gross negligence lawsuit against the company. By the time we’d filed our lawsuit at the beginning of July, 2014, the company had already removed the truck from the ravine and launched their own investigation into the accident. Their corporate representative testified that OSHA did not investigate the accident, and that as of 2015, the company still hadn’t determined the cause of the accident other than proving that our client’s husband was not responsible for the wreck.

Our client wanted to make sure no other family ever has to suffer the same loss as hers. She wanted to know why the company hadn’t inspected the truck’s brakes since February, why the company didn’t have a system in place to ensure drivers were taking the safest route, and why the company never tested the rig trucks in their fleet to find out what types of roads and terrain to avoid.

The case went to mediation in February 2016. The representative from the company had worked with our client’s husband on safety committees at the company and knew him well. Our client spoke directly to the company representative, telling him that her husband loved working for the company and that he was a great man. She wanted the company to change their policies to make sure this never happens again. The company representative spoke as well, saying that they’d changed policies since the accident and broke down into tears talking about his recollections of our client’s husband. It was in that moment that our client was able to obtain some closure.

Since our client wasn’t interested in obtaining money from the company, she had gone into mediation wanting to have an open conversation and get the answers she’d been seeking for almost two years.

A father's legacy

At the end of the day, after settlement discussions took place, the company representative announced that, as part of the settlement, the company was endowing an annual scholarship at our client’s husband’s high school in his name and our client would be in charge of choosing the recipient each year. Our client’s husband was well known for advocating for education - he wanted his kids to get the education he didn’t, he supported his wife through nursing school, and he always encouraged people and children to pursue their dreams and go to school. This scholarship honors his memory and provides our client with a means of ensuring her husband’s love for education is never forgotten.

With her questions answered, with assurances that policies have changed, our client is able to move forward with some peace of mind that this will never happen to anyone else who works at that company. Her persistence paid off.

Confidential Settlement

Vuk Stevan Vujasinovic
Experienced Injury Lawyer. First Generation American. Life-Long Texan. Husband. Father.