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Oklahoma Supreme Court strikes down part of workers comp law

OKLAHOMA CITY - Another Oklahoma law has been struck down as unconstitutional following a lawsuit filed by the family of an Oklahoma man.

On Tuesday, the Oklahoma Supreme Court struck down a part of our state’s workers compensation law. The part that was struck down exempted oil and natural gas companies from being sued when workers are injured or killed on the job.

The ruling came after a lawsuit revolving around the death of David Chambers.

Chambers worked for a trucking company and was severely burned while working at an oil well site in Crescent in 2014. He later died from his injuries.

His daughter filed a wrongful death action against the owner and operator of the well site, Stephens Production Company.

However, Stephens argued that it was immune from the lawsuit because of a clause added in when Oklahoma overhauled the workers compensation laws in 2011.

The statute reads, “For the purpose of extending the immunity of this section, any operator or owner of an oil or gas well … shall be deemed to be an intermediate or principal employer.”

“What they did was they slid in to the Workers Compensation Act a provision of the law that granted complete blanket immunity to the operator of an oil and gas well site,” said Noble McIntyre, a personal injury attorney.

The Supreme Court decision was unanimous, with one judge recusing himself. The judges found it was an “unconstitutional special law” and that “… no valid reason exists for the special treatment of the oil and gas industry …”

“No other industry in Oklahoma was given this special treatment, which is exactly why it came down 8 to nothing with one recusing out of the Oklahoma Supreme Court,” said McIntyre.

McIntyre says many attorneys knew it was only a matter of time before this part of the law was struck down.

“The folks out there that pass these laws get their campaign contributions from somewhere and, in this case, it was the oil and gas industry,” said McIntyre.

The primary author of the workers compensation overhaul bill was Sen. Anthony Sykes.

From 2009 to 2011, he received almost $13,000 in donations from individuals and groups associated with the oil and gas industry.

News 4 tried several times to contact Sen. Sykes, calling his office twice and sending an e-mail, asking about that particular clause in the law.

So far, we have not received a response.

The lawyer for the family of David Chambers, Luke Abel, sent us this statement regarding the Supreme Court's decision:

“The family of David Chambers and I are certainly pleased with the Supreme Court’s decision. The unanimous decision, with one recusal, holds that those who are injured while working on an oil or gas well should be treated the same way as injured workers in all other industries. The legislation at issue deemed the owner and operator to be an employer of anyone who is injured working on a well, and therefore limited injured workers to claims in the workers’ compensation system. I am not aware of any other law which gives special treatment to only one particular industry as it relates to injured workers. The Supreme Court decision puts the oil and gas industry on the same level as all other industries. An injured worker on an oil and gas well is no longer automatically deemed an employee of the owner and operator. Whether an injured worker can file a lawsuit against the owner and/or operator depends on the nature of the relationship between the injured worker and the owner/operator, just as it does in all other industries. The Supreme Court found, “no valid reason exists for the special treatment of the oil and gas industry . . .”. We applaud the Supreme Court for this decision and for standing up for injured Oklahomans.”