Another suit filed over oilfield death, more cases to follow

Otto

Photo courtesy of Otto family

Blaine Otto posed with a football for his senior picture at Bottineau, N.D., High School in 1992. He died in 2013 while working in the Bakken oilfield.

The family of a Sidney man who was found dead near the oil storage tank he was inspecting near Keene, N.D., has filed a lawsuit in federal court in Billings, blaming the death of Blaine Otto on the negligence of the company that owned the oil well.

The same attorney who filed that suit represented Dustin Bergsing, a 21-year-old oilfield worker from Edgar, Mont., who died under similar circumstances, and whose family reached a confidential settlement with Marathon Oil in 2013. The terms of that settlement were not disclosed, but a pretrial statement said a computation of damages put the value of the case “in the seven-figure range.”

John Hiatt, an investigator for the Bremseth Law Firm, of Minnetonka, Minn., which filed the recent lawsuit on behalf of Otto’s estate, said the firm has been retained by the families of four other oil workers whose deaths were strikingly similar to those of Bergsing and Otto. Attorneys are still trying to determine where and when to file lawsuits on behalf of those families, Hiatt said.

Bergsing, Otto and the other four men represented by Bremseth had another commonality: they were six of the nine oilfield workers who were found by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to have died since 2010 from inhaling toxic vapors in the course of inspecting oil-storage tanks.

The plaintiff in the suit filed in U.S. District Court in Billings in July was Bradley Otto, Blaine Otto’s brother and the representative of his estate. Their sister, Becky Thomas, said there were eight children in the family, and all seven surviving siblings and their parents made the decision to file the lawsuit.

“We’re all absolutely on the same page with this,” she said.

The suit was filed by Fredric Bremseth and Keith Ekstrom against Newfield Exploration Co., Newfield Production Co. and Newfield Exploration Mid-Continent Inc. Bremseth said in a telephone interview that all three entities were named because it is not entirely clear which of the related companies actually operated the well site, or whether all three shared liability.

The lawsuit said Otto, a truck driver, worked on contract with a company that provided services to Newfield and was working at a Newfield oil well in McKenzie County, N.D., on the day of his death, July 18, 2013. He was 39.

Newfield owns wells in the Bakken Shale Oil Field that “have been known to produce dangerous concentrations of toxic gases in the vicinity of the well and storage tanks,” the suit said. “The vapors from these substances, the exact nature of which is unknown at the present time, can be toxic and fatal if inhaled.”

Otto was found by a co-worker slumped over a catwalk railing. As reported by Mike Soraghan, who has been writing about oilfield deaths for years for EnergyWire, Otto’s “face was next to a tank hatch. His eyes were open, but he wasn’t breathing. Next to him were his tools for measuring and sampling the tank.”

The lawsuit said Newfield failed in its duty to keep its equipment and facilities safe, even though it was “under a heightened duty of care … due to known risks of ultra-hazardous, deadly vapors at wells” in the Bakken. It has been reported that the vapors contain volatile organic compounds or volatile hydrocarbons.

The suit, which has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Susan Watters, asks for a jury trial and seeks unspecified punitive damages.

In their response, filed by Guy Rogers and Roger Wilson, with the Brown Law Firm in Billings, the defendants denied all the allegations and said any injuries or losses “were directly caused by the intervening, superseding acts and conducts of others over which Newfield Defendants had no control, thereby precluding any recovery against them.”

Their response also said that Otto’s death certificate, issued by the North Dakota Department of Health, “notes the manner of death was natural, the immediate cause of death was sudden cardiac arrhythmia, and contributing factors included morbid obesity and arteriosclerotic heart disease.”

But in other, similar cases, as Soraghan has reported, authorities first suspected the men had died of exposure to toxic levels of hydrogen sulfide or “sour gas,” a well-recognized hazard in the oil business. When hydrogen sulfide was ruled out as a cause of death, Soraghan reported, “authorities largely dropped the idea that the deaths were caused by their jobs, which in each case involved measuring the levels of the petroleum-laden tanks.”

The NIOSH report on the nine oilfield deaths did not name the workers, but the identities of most of them were established based on the information NIOSH did release.

Bremseth, the attorney for Bergsing’s family and now Otto’s family, said that the similarities in the circumstances of all nine fatalities lead to the inescapable conclusion that all the men were killed by exposure to volatile organic compounds.

“What are the chances all these people would die exactly the same way?” he asked. “It’s impossible.”

The other workers who were killed and whose families have retained Bremseth’s law firm are Trent Vigus, who died near Lambert, Mont., in 2010; Brandon Belk, who died in 2013 near Watford City, N.D.; Joe Ray Sherman, who died in Weld County, Colo., in 2014; and David Simpson, who died near Mannsville, Okla., in 2014.

Becky Thomas, who lives in New York, said her parents had four boys and four girls, all given names that started with the letter “B.” The first six children were born in Minnesota, but Blaine, who was the seventh child, and his little sister were born in Havre.

Thomas said her brother grew up in Bottineau, N.D., and played basketball and baseball in high school there. After her parents moved to Sidney, she said, Blaine and his little sister moved there, too.

Blaine worked for a time as a hotel manager in Fairview and a farmhand near Sidney. He also made deliveries for a local bottler and had been a truck driver for Falco Energy Transportation for three or four years at the time of his death. Blaine was also an avid angler, hunter and golfer who was “very active,” Thomas said.

Thomas did a lot of research after her brother’s death, into how he died and how others had died in similar circumstances.

“It was kind of gnawing at us,” she said. “The more I read, the more research I did, I said, ‘We can’t let this go.’”

Bremseth said no one knows how many workers beyond the nine identified so far have been killed by volatile organic compounds in oilfields around the United States. At least now there is a growing realization that the deaths were caused by work-related exposure, he said.

The families of those whose deaths were attributed to natural causes, including Bergsing and Otto, were not eligible for accidental-death benefits, he said.

“They get nothing,” he said. “They’re left with absolutely nothing.”

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