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Merit Energy Co., LLC v. Horr

Supreme Court of Wyoming

January 6, 2016

MERIT ENERGY COMPANY, LLC, Appellant (Defendant),
v.
BLAKE HORR, Appellee (Plaintiff)

Page 490

Appeal from the District Court of Sweetwater County. The Honorable Richard L. Lavery, Judge.

Representing Appellant: Timothy W. Miller, Attorney at Law, Casper, Wyoming; Weston W. Reeves, Park Street Law Office, Casper, Wyoming. Argument by Mr. Miller.

Representing Appellee: G. Bryan Ulmer, III, and Grant H. Lawson, The Spence Law Firm, LLC, Jackson, Wyoming. Argument by Mr. Ulmer.

Before BURKE, C.J., and HILL, DAVIS, FOX, and KAUTZ, JJ.

OPINION

Page 491

DAVIS, Justice.

[¶1] Merit Energy Company, LLC, needed to clean out its oil and gas wells that had become clogged with debris over time. It hired an independent contractor, Basic Energy Services, Inc., to do the job. Unfortunately, Basic employee Blake Horr was seriously injured when a stripping rubber launched out of a wellhead due to a buildup of pressure. Horr sued Merit based on several exceptions to the general rule that the employer of an independent contractor is not liable for physical harm caused to another by an act or omission of the contractor or his servants. A jury returned a verdict finding Merit substantially at fault and that its fault

Page 492

had caused Horr well over two million dollars in damages. The district court entered judgment on the jury verdict.

[¶2] Merit contends that the district court misapplied Wyoming law both in its instructions to the jury and in denying Merit's motion for judgment as a matter of law. A solicitous review of our law and the record proves otherwise. Accordingly, we affirm.

ISSUES

[¶3] 1. In resolving whether Merit owed a duty to Horr, did the district court err when it instructed the jury to determine if Merit retained control over any part of the work that caused injury to Horr?

2. Did the district court abuse its discretion by refusing to give the jury Merit's proposed instruction detailing Basic's duty of care to Horr, and opting instead to provide a more general duty of care instruction?

3. Was the evidence such that reasonable persons could only reach one conclusion as to the verdict, which would have required the district court to grant Merit's motion for judgment as a matter of law?

FACTS

[¶4] Merit owns and operates oil and gas wells in the Lost Soldier Unit near Bairoil, Wyoming. These are high pressure wells because Merit injects CO2 into the reservoirs in order to force oil to its producing wells. Over time, the bottoms of the wells accumulate sand and other debris that limits production. When this occurs, the wells need to be cleaned out to restore optimal flow.

[¶5] Merit hired an independent contractor, Basic, to clean out a few of these wells. The field was managed by Merit's operations manager, John Brooks, who supervised Merit's field foreman, otherwise known as the company man. The company man was in charge of cleanout operations in the field, and he provided direction to Basic's rig manager. During the relevant time period, two different Merit company men were in charge. Mike Self held that position when Basic started working in this field. Steve Kalberer took over in January 2011, roughly three months before the incident with Horr.

[¶6] The equipment used to clean out the well at issue in the instant case included a stripper head for well control, which was located just above the blowout preventer (BOP). The stripper head encased a rubber that fit tightly around the tubing or drill pipe Basic inserted and removed as part of cleanup operations. The rubber was held in place by bolts into the head's metal top. The diagram below illustrates the general setup of the stripper head and associated equipment.

Page 493

[¶7] Many months before the incident involving Horr, Merit had provided a " Washington" stripper head, along with the BOP, for the Basic crew to use when servicing Merit's wells. Significantly, the Washington head had a release valve that could be used to relieve pressure trapped between it and the blowout preventer. Without such a valve, the well would need to be " killed" to control the pressure.[1]

[¶8] At some point prior to the accident, Merit's company man, Self, decided that Merit would no longer pay for the Washington head and told Basic's supervisor, Willard Sanders, that Basic needed to provide a different stripper head. Basic obtained a " Hercules" stripper head, which did not have a release valve. Basic presented the Hercules head to Self for approval, and he approved it even though it did not have a release valve. A Hercules head was used on the well the day Horr was injured.

[¶9] On April 11, 2011, Horr was part of a Basic crew performing cleanout operations on one of the wells. Sanders was Basic's supervisor on the job, Adam Eddy was the workover rig operator, and Horr was the floorhand. During the job, tubing (drill pipe) became stuck in the rubber seal in the wellhead as the crew was pulling the pipe out of the well. The crew stopped work, closed the BOP, and Sanders sought out Kalberer to see how Merit wanted to proceed.

[¶10] Kalberer came to the well site and had Sanders come over to his truck to discuss the problem. Without personally inspecting the equipment or checking the well pressure, Kalberer directed the Basic crew to replace the stripping rubber. Accordingly, Horr began removing bolts that held the rubber in place. As he did so, pressure trapped between the BOP and the ...


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