The deaths of three young men killed in an oil field accident four years ago could have been prevented if Vintage Petroleum Inc. would have taken proper safety measures, a Ventura County judge ruled Wednesday.
In a sharply worded decision, Judge Barbara Lane blamed the deaths, and injuries suffered by three other workers during a gas leak, squarely on Vintage for failing to assess geological risks at its Seacliff oil production plant.
Lane also found that an on-site field supervisor hired by the Oklahoma-based company was negligent for not following safety precautions that could have saved the workers' lives.
"John Crawford relied on misinformation given to him by Vintage that resulted in the tragic events," Lane announced to a courtroom crowded with tearful relatives of those killed and injured.
The ruling opens Vintage to more than $10 million in potential damages. The damage phase of the trial began almost immediately after Lane's ruling and is expected to last several weeks.
Outside the courtroom, Carol Davis, whose 26-year-old son, Sean Harris, was among those killed, praised Lane's decision and said she hopes it will result in tighter safety requirements within the oil production industry.
"Maybe now things will change, maybe they will see that wells are checked," she said, wiping tears from her cheeks. "I don't want to see any mother go through what I have gone through."
Harris and two other workers, Ronald Johnson and Jason Hoskins, died on Aug. 10, 1994, after inhaling toxic fumes from a gas leak at Vintage's oil production plant in the foothills of Rincon Mountain, north of Ventura.
The men were part of a crew hired by a subcontractor to redrill a 70-year-old well at the site.
On the morning of the accident, the workers were injecting water down a steel pipe into the well, trying to force oil to the surface. At about noon, they removed their nozzles and water began gushing up from the ground below. As they struggled to contain the geyser, a deadly concentration of gases spewed from the ground.
Harris, Johnson and Hoskins died almost immediately after inhaling the toxic fumes. Three other men who came to their rescue were injured.
After the accident, they filed a negligence lawsuit against Vintage, along with relatives of the men killed.
During a five-month trial, defense attorney Bruce Finck presented evidence to show that the poisonous gases stemmed from natural pressures in the earth and not negligence on the part of Vintage.
He suggested that the oil field workers and two subcontractors, Pride Petroleum Service Co. and Schulumberger Wireline and Testing, were liable for the accident for not following safety procedures.
Attorneys for the killed and injured workers charged, however, that Vintage had not taken proper steps to determine geological risks at the old oil site. They also argued that site boss Crawford refused to take steps to head off such an accident. Lane agreed.
"One-hundred percent of the negligence of this accident rests with Vintage Petroleum," she said, stating that the six workers shared no responsibility for the accident.
Lane did find, however, that Johnson was negligent for not following safety measures and putting himself at risk while trying to save a co-worker.
For nearly three hours, the judge explained the reasoning behind her decision and reviewed key evidence from the trial.
With regard to Crawford, Lane said he had no safety training for "confined space" areas like the one the field crew was working in.
Despite urgings from two workers, evidence showed, Crawford refused to set up a "flow line" that Lane said could have prevented the accident.
The flow line is a piece of safety equipment used to divert gases. Plaintiffs' attorney Steven Archer argued that the line should have been hooked up once workers saw oil moving.
But that didn't happen.
Instead, water burst from the aging well carrying toxic fumes with it. Crawford ordered the workers to shut the valve, but it was too late.
Lane said evidence showed that the fluid rose the distance of more than two football fields in six minutes, releasing a toxic mixture of methane and hydrogen gases.
Beyond Crawford's role, Lane said, Vintage was "directly negligent" for failing to adequately examine the well site or its history.
One witness acknowledged that nothing was done to determine the pressure of the reservoir beneath the well, the porosity of the soil or other geological characteristics, Lane noted. As a result, Vintage did not provide Crawford with the information he needed to supervise the job, she concluded.
"If the reservoir characteristics had been studied," she said, " . . . the risk of a gas kick would have been readily foreseeable."
The contractual relationship between Vintage and Crawford was also a significant issue in the case. Vintage's attorney maintained that Crawford was an independent contractor--not an employee.