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Barnett v. Coe Production Co., LLC

United States District Court, N.D. Oklahoma

April 7, 2017

TRAVIS BARNETT, Plaintiff,
v.
COE PRODUCTION COMPANY, LLC, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          TERENCE KERN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Before the Court is Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 24).

         I. Factual Background

         Plaintiff Travis Barnett (“Barnett”) is a Kansas resident employed by Danlin Industries Corporation (“Danlin”), a Kansas corporation, as a field data technician. Defendant Coe Production Company (“Coe”) is an Oklahoma corporation in the business of exploring for, drilling for, and producing oil at wells in Oklahoma. Prior to April 9, 2014, Coe entered into an oral agreement with Danlin whereby Danlin supplied Coe with chemicals for one of its seven wells on a tract of land in Oklahoma known as Curl's Lease. In addition to supplying chemicals, Danlin provided services associated with the chemicals, including pumping the chemicals into the well and testing water onsite.

         On April 9, 2014, Barnett was working at Curl's Lease. After collecting a water sample from a water tower, he fell from the top step of a wooden staircase. According to Coe, Barnett sought and recovered benefits from Danlin under the Oklahoma Administrative Workers' Compensation Act, Okla. Stat. tit. 85A, § 1, et seq. (Supp. 2013) (“OAWCA”). Coe did not cite any evidence in support of this contention, and it is not part of his statement of material facts. Barnett contends he received benefits from Danlin under the workers' compensation laws of Kansas, but he also does not cite any evidence in support of that assertion. For purposes of this motion and because Coe bears the burden of proof, the Court assumes Barnett recovered from Danlin under the workers' compensation laws of Kansas.

         On April 8, 2016, Barnett filed suit in this Court against Coe alleging that Coe was negligent in creating and failing to warn regarding an unreasonably dangerous condition, failing to maintain its business premises, and failing to inspect its business premises. Barnett sued Coe “for the benefit of [Danlin] or [Danlin's] worker's compensation insurer as their interests appear.” (Compl. ¶ 16.) Coe moved for summary judgment on all claims.

         II. Summary Judgment Standard

         Summary judgment is proper only if “there is no genuine issue as to any material fact, and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56©. The moving party bears the burden of showing that no genuine issue of material fact exists. See Zamora v. Elite Logistics, Inc., 449 F.3d 1106, 1112 (10th Cir. 2006). The Court resolves all factual disputes and draws all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-moving party. Id. However, the party seeking to overcome a motion for summary judgment may not “rest on mere allegations” in its complaint but must “set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e). The party seeking to overcome a motion for summary judgment must also make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of those elements essential to that party's case. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323-33 (1986).

         III. Motion for Summary Judgment

         Coe argues that it enjoys immunity from Barnett's tort claims as Danlin's “principal employer, ” as that term is used in § 5(A) and § 5(E) of the OAWCA. In response, Barnett argues: (1) the OAWCA does not apply because Barnett never sought benefits under the OAWCA; (2) questions of fact preclude summary judgment as to the availability of § 5(E) immunity; and (3) the immunity extended to oil and gas well owners/operators under § 5(A) violates the Oklahoma Constitution.

         A. Application of OAWCA

         The OAWCA's “Exclusive Liability/Immunity” provision states that “[t]he rights and remedies granted to an employee subject to the provisions of the [OAWCA] shall be exclusive of all other rights and remedies of the employee . . . .” Okla. Stat. tit. 85A, § 5(A). Barnett contends that, because he “never claimed benefits for an injury pursuant to the provisions of the [OAWCA], ” he was “never subject to the [OAWCA].” (Resp. to Mot. for Summ. J. 4-5.) Coe relies upon § 3 of the OAWCA, which provides that “[e]very employer and every employee, unless otherwise specifically provided in this act, shall be subject and bound to the provisions of the [OAWCA].” Okla. Stat. tit. 85A, § 3(A). Neither party cited any case law or devoted significant briefing to this threshold argument.

         Based on a common-sense understanding of the OAWCA, the Court concludes that Barnett is an employee subject to the OAWCA, despite the fact that he did not seek benefits from Coe or Danlin thereunder. First, Barnett filed suit in Oklahoma district court on the basis of diversity jurisdiction, and the Court must apply Oklahoma law regardless of where Barnett originally collected workers' compensation proceeds from Danlin. Second, if immunity was only triggered after an injured worker sought benefits under the OAWCA, it would cease to serve any purpose in providing employers immunity from tort claims. Third, the Court finds nothing in case law or statutes to suggest that a “principal employer” in Oklahoma loses statutory immunity because the injured employee received workers' compensation benefits from the “immediate employer” in another state. Finally, the OAWCA governs the precise situation presented - namely, whether and under what circumstances a secondary employer enjoys immunity from suit in tort. Were the Court to accept Barnett's argument, the Court would be effectively side-stepping Oklahoma statutes and case law intended to govern Coe's immunity or non-immunity from Barnett's tort claims.

         B. “Principal Employer” ...


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