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From Products Liability Law Daily, November 7, 2018

Appellate court affirms no duty of care absent unreasonable conduct under Oklahoma law

By Miriam A. Friedman, J.D.

Two oil drilling companies did not display unreasonable conduct in returning to the firm from which they had leased it a drilling device into which debris, including bolts, had fallen, a federal appellate panel determined, concluding that the drilling companies did not owe a duty of care to the lessor’s employees who had been injured while disassembling and cleaning the device. To establish a duty of care, the injured employees had to show that the drilling companies knew or should have known of some danger of harm that might lead a reasonable, prudent person to view the conduct to be unreasonably dangerous, which they failed to do, the panel explained (McGehee v. Forest Oil Corp., November 6, 2018, Matheson, S.).

Forest Oil Corp. and Lantern Drilling Co. leased a ProShot MWD drilling device from Teledrift, Inc. and returned the device to be disassembled and cleaned after use. The Teledrift employees charged with cleaning the device discovered that, along with mud and other debris, several small bolts had fallen into it. When one of the employees attempted to remove the bolts, the device’s lithium battery pack exploded, injuring him and a co-worker. The two injured men sued the drilling companies in state court, alleging that the companies had negligently caused the explosion by allowing bolts to fall into the device. The case was removed to federal court and, following discovery, the drilling companies moved for summary judgment. The trial court granted the companies’ motion, holding that they did not owe the injured employees a duty of care under Oklahoma tort law. (In a separate decision, upon motions for summary judgment by two third-party manufacturers in an indemnification action stemming from products liability claims concerning the exploding battery pack, the court denied the motions because questions of material fact existed as to who designed the battery pack [see Products Liability Law Daily’s October 24, 2017 analysis].) The employees appealed the trial court’s decision.

Duty of care. The appellate panel found that although the drilling companies might have created a foreseeable risk of harm to individuals who subsequently would disassemble the device, alone, a foreseeable risk of harm is not enough to establish a duty of care under Oklahoma law. Rather, under applicable case precedent, the plaintiff must be foreseeably endangered by the defendant’s conduct with respect to all risks that make the conduct unreasonably dangerous. Under that scheme, because it was common for debris to fall into the drilling device during use, and because users were expected to return the device for employees of the rental company to clean out mud and rocks, disassemble the device, and prepare it for its next use, the injured men could not be said to have "engage[d] in conduct that created an unreasonably dangerous foreseeable risk," the panel advised.

Therefore, under the relevant Oklahoma standard, the drilling companies did not owe a duty of care to the injured employees of the rental company. To establish a duty of care, the employees had to show that the two drilling companies knew or should have known of some danger of harm that might lead a reasonable, prudent person to view the conduct to be unreasonably dangerous. According to the appellate panel, the injured men failed to do this, as the drilling companies’ conduct was not unreasonable under a reasonably prudent person standard.

Even though the drilling companies might have been able to foresee that debris lodged in the device could pose a risk to the lessor’s employees tasked with cleaning it, returning the device with that knowledge was not unreasonable under the circumstances, the panel instructed, noting that the record lacked any evidence that the drilling companies were aware of bolts having fallen into the device and that the employees did not stop disassembly operations when the bolts were found. Accordingly, the trial court’s grant of summary judgment favoring the drilling companies was affirmed.

The case is No. 17-6238.

Attorneys: Michael Burrage (Whitten Burrage) for Jacob McGehee. Clark Crapster (Steidley & Neal) for Forest Oil Corp. and Lantern Drilling Co. Jared Boyer (HB Law Partners PLLC) and Bradley K. Donnell (McAfee & Taft) for Southwest Electronic Energy Corp.

Companies: Forest Oil Corp.; Lantern Drilling Co.; Southwest Electronic Energy Corp.

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