Oklahoma Supreme Court Overturns Part of State's Workers' Compensation Act

At the heart of each state's Workers' Compensation statute is the doctrine that an employer cannot be sued by an employee claiming that the employer's negligence was the cause of a worker's injury. This allows an injured worker an almost-immediate access to medical and income protection benefits, but also protects the employer against being the target of a liability lawsuit each time a worker is injured.

However, there have been occasions in which a state legislature, in its eagerness to protect a state's major industry, has unlawfully extended the "immunity" enjoyed under its Workers' Compensation, as a following recent decision by the Oklahoma Supreme Court illustrates.

The Case

On October 6, 2014, David Chambers, an employee of RDT Trucking, Inc., was dispatched to an oil-well site that was owned and operated by Stephens Production Company (SPC) to pick up waste water. Upon arrival at the well, Chambers worked on or around a device known as a "heater treater." During this work, Chambers suffered severe burns, which eventually led to his death.

Ms. Glory Strickland, Chambers' surviving daughter and Administrator of the Estate, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against SPC and others in the District Court of Oklahoma County, alleging negligence for failure to properly operate, maintain, and inspect the well.

SPC filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, claiming immunity under § 5 of the Oklahoma Administrative Workers' Compensation Act (OAWCA), which provided, in part. that "… any operator or owner of an oil or gas well . . . shall be deemed to be an intermediate or principal employer…" for purposes of extending immunity from civil liability. Restated, since an injured employee cannot sue his or her employer for negligence, and since the OAWACA held that any oil and/or gas well was an "intermediate or principal employer," SPC could not be sued.

The Oklahoma Supreme Court disagreed and ruled (8-0) that the immunity granted to oil and gas well owners and/or operators was a "special law" (a law enacted for the benefit of a particular group granting it status or protection not enjoyed by others) and thus prohibited by the Oklahoma Constitution. The court held that, since SPC's immunity arose from an invalid section of law, the case should be ordered remanded ("sent back") to the Superior Court of Oklahoma County for trial.


Workers' Compensation has been described as a "Grand Bargain." The injured worker, in exchange for not having to prove that his or her employer was negligent, is granted almost immediate coverage of any medical expenses arising from an on-the-job injury. On the other side of this Grand Bargain, employers are granted immunity from a worker's lawsuit seeking personal injury damages for an injury that arose from an employer's negligence.

As in any "bargain," each participant usually "gains" something while ceding ("giving up") something that the other party desires. In Workers' Compensation law, the injured worker benefits from not having to prove that his or her injury was not (within reason) due to their own misconduct and begins receiving benefits almost immediately. In turn, the employer cannot be sued for negligence by an injured worker. In Strickland, the court held that the legislature violated the "bargain" by exempting practically an entire industry from accounting for its own negligence. Thus, the oil and gas industry would be held blameless even if the injured worker was a subcontractor, as was Strickland. The Oklahoma Supreme Court rejected that privilege as incompatible with justice.

This case, of course, applies only to the courts of the State of Oklahoma. It does, however, illustrate why any injured worker should always seek the advice of an experienced Workers' Compensation lawyer concerning the liability of an employer for a worker's injuries.

You can read the full decision in this case, Strickland v. Stephens Production Co., at Justia.com