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In re Worker's Compensation Claim of Williams

Supreme Court of Wyoming

February 5, 2018


         Appeal from the District Court of Campbell County The Honorable Thomas W. Rumpke, Judge

          Representing Appellant Peter K. Michael, Wyoming Attorney General; Daniel E. White, Deputy Attorney General; J.C. DeMers, Senior Assistant Attorney General; and Benjamin Eliazar Fischer, Assistant Attorney General.

          Representing Appellee Larry B. Jones of Burg Simpson Eldredge Hersh & Jardin, P.C., Cody, WY.

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

          HILL, JUSTICE.

         [¶1] Richard Williams suffered a head injury while working as a well operator and applied for workers' compensation benefits. In Mr. Williams' version of events, a flash fire startled him and caused him to fall backward and strike his head. Because the building in which Mr. Williams was working when he suffered his injury showed no signs of a recent fire, the Wyoming Workers' Compensation Division (Division) determined that Mr. Williams' injury did not arise out of and in the course of his employment and denied benefits.

         [¶2] The Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH) upheld the denial of benefits based on its finding that Mr. Williams and his version of events lacked credibility, and Mr. Williams filed a petition for review in district court. The district court concluded that the OAH decision was contrary to overwhelming medical evidence that Mr. Williams injured his head while engaged in work-related activities and reversed. We affirm.


         [¶3] The Division presents two issues on appeal, which we restate as a single issue:

I. Is the OAH decision upholding the Division's denial of benefits contrary to the overwhelming weight of the evidence?


         [¶4] In June 2014, Richard Williams was employed by L&L Enterprises as a well operator at the North Buck Draw Unit (NBDU), a field owned and operated by EOG Resources, Inc. (EOG) in Campbell County, Wyoming.[1] In that position, Mr. Williams oversaw production of twenty-four oil wells and maintained the operation's oil separator units. He generally worked alone, eight days on, six days off.

         [¶5] On June 21, 2014, Mr. Williams followed his normal daily routine and arrived at the field at about 7:00 a.m. He checked the better-producing wells for any immediate attention that might be required and then headed to the process building. In the process building, he checked the separators, dump valves, and fluid levels to ensure they were working properly. He then exited the back of that building and checked the gas metering station to record gas sales for the previous day. Mr. Williams then returned to his truck and drove to the dehydration building.

         [¶6] At approximately 8:30 a.m., as Mr. Williams was driving to the dehydration building, he received and responded to a text message from his wife. A short time after that text message, he arrived at the dehydration building and began his tasks there. He first checked the three-stage separator and the reboiler and then went out the building's back door to the treater, where he checked the oil water, dump valves, and other parts of the machinery to ensure everything was working properly.

         [¶7] After completing that task, Mr. Williams returned to the dehydration building to check the condensate collected in the separators. Under normal conditions, a pump would direct the condensate fluid through the separators into the treater, but that pump had broken down about a year earlier. To compensate for the lack of a pump, Mr. Williams was instructed to manually empty both separators into a subfloor containment unit. The larger of the separators had a valve that would allow its condensate to be emptied into the containment unit, but for the smaller separator, Mr. Williams was instructed to use a metal bucket to collect the liquid and then dump the liquid into the containment unit. Mr. Williams explained:

Q. So you were dumping something in the bucket. What is it that you were dumping?
A. That's condensate. Because what happens is the reboiler super-heats the glycol and as a result the condensate in it and the water in it evaporate into steam and end up going out the top and into a condenser, where it gets cooled back off and turned to a liquid and dumped into this scrubber, I guess you can call it.
And then naturally when that happens you are going to have gas in with that, so then all of that gas, and whatnot, flows out the top of that over to the scrubber where it drops out the rest of any liquids, and whatnot, that it can. And the gas goes out to a flare stack to get burned off for EPA regulations.
And what happens that - like I say, the fluid in there most typically is condensate because it's the lightest and it's the thing that carries with the gas the most, so that's why we have to keep that scrubber empty, because if it fills up then you start having condensate overflowing, going out into the gas fumes into the flare stack and the flare stack gets too hot and bad things happen.
So that's what I was dumping into the bucket was the condensate from that scrubber and then putting it into this containment tank until it gets full, and then we'd have them come haul it off however, you know, you need to when it gets full.
Q. So you're working with very flammable substances?
A. Yes.

         [¶8] To reach the containment unit's opening, where the bucket with condensate from the smaller separator would be dumped, Mr. Williams had to step up onto a platform about six to twelve inches off the building's concrete floor. Mr. Williams did this, and according to his version of events, while he was emptying the contents of the bucket into the containment unit, he saw a flash of fire come over the top of the bucket. This startled him and he stumbled backwards, fell off the platform, hit his head on the building's concrete floor, and lost consciousness. When he awoke, he saw what appeared to be the containment unit on fire. He then retrieved the fire extinguisher mounted outside the building's door and sprayed the fire extinguisher in a back and forth sweeping motion until he reached the containment unit, which he also sprayed with the extinguisher.

         [¶9] At 8:48 a.m., Mr. Williams called 911 from his truck and reported the fire and his fall. An ambulance and fire unit responded, and Wyoming Life Flight was also dispatched to the location. The EMS report noted:

Dispatched 911 to the North Buck Draw Station for a male that fell backward after a flash-over. Patient hit his head and complains of head pain. Dispatch advised patient becoming drowsy and not responding well. Wyoming Life Flight requested prior to arrival on scene.
Upon arrival patient awake and in the front seat of his vehicle. Patient states "worst headache ever". Patient states pain is in the back of his head. Pain is described as a stabbing pain in the occipital area. No obvious signs of injury noted, no hematoma, no swelling and no crepitus. * * * While waiting for life flight to land, patient describes pain as moving in his head and still sharp in nature. * * *

         [¶10] The Campbell County Fire Department arrived at the scene at about 9:15 a.m. It reported its response and findings as follows:

* * * Dispatch advised that the patient indicated that there had been a flash fire caused by condensate with which he was working. Additional information indicated that the patient had experienced loss of consciousness, and he was difficult to understand. Dispatch advised that they were attempting to keep the patient awake with phone conversation. Dispatch relayed that the patient thought the fire was out after he used a fire extinguisher.
During the initial response, Campbell County Memorial Hospital (CCMH) Emergency Medical Services (EMS) requested LifeFlight and requested CHF4 Shank to be the ground contact.
** *
Upon arrival, EMS was on scene attending to the patient, who was able to direct CHF4 Shank to the processing building as the area where the incident occurred; there was no fire showing from the processing building. Upon further investigation inside the processing building, there was no fire or smoke visible. There was a distinct odor that was not recognizable to CHF4 Shank. It appeared that an ABC fire extinguisher had been discharged inside the structure, as there was material similar to dry-chemical extinguishing agent across most of the interior. No evidence of fire, smoke or spill was evident upon initial investigation. No smoke, soot or singed materials were present.
** *
CHF4 Shank made the decision to close the building and secure it for EOG Resources. CHF4 Shank did not immediately return to investigate because of the unknown nature of the situation and the volatility of the condensate potentially involved in the initial incident.
** *
As the property was a gas processing site, CCFD did not have jurisdictional authority to conduct a fire origin and cause investigation, and no request was made by the owner for CCFD to conduct an investigation.

         [¶11] Mr. Williams was placed on the Life Flight helicopter and transported to the Wyoming Medical Center in Casper, Wyoming. The Life Flight notes indicate Mr. Williams was unable to walk without assistance due to severe dizziness, and he was "found to have a hematoma to the basilar region with no other external signs of injury."

         [¶12] Upon arrival at the Wyoming Medical Center, Mr. Williams was treated in the emergency room by Dr. Eugene Duquette. Dr. Duquette reported that "[i]nitially, it is very difficult to get a history from this gentleman. He is very concussive when he first gets here; he actually clears as time progresses." On physical examination, Dr. Duquette found "some bruising and an abrasion with some puffiness on his posterior occiput." Dr. Duquette assessed Mr. Williams as having a "[c]losed head injury with postconcussion syndrome and occipital hematoma, " and discharged him with a pain medication prescription and "closed head injury precautions."

         [¶13] On June 23, 2014, Mr. Williams completed and signed a report of injury for submission to the Division. On that same date, at the request of EOG, Mr. Williams returned to the dehydrator building to do an accident reconstruction. During that meeting, Mr. Williams became concerned that EOG did not intend to address what he felt were dangerous conditions at the site, and he therefore, on June 24, 2014, submitted a complaint to OSHA reporting his safety concerns.

         [¶14] On June 25, 2014, Roger Eagleston, a senior OSHA compliance officer, investigated the site and concluded that each of the eight hazards Mr. Williams reported had merit. He also reported:

* * * With the evidence obtained during this inspection I have concluded beyond a reasonable doubt that a flash fire could not have occurred. Fire Chief, Bill Swank of the Campbell County Fire department-Wright concurred with my findings. [EOG] Denver based Safety Manager Mike McDonald stated there (sic) internal review of the matter and his prior experience as ...

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