Safety Advances in Offshore Oil and Gas Production

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Earlier this week, the Houston Chronicle ran an eye-opening story about safety advances in the offshore oil and gas industry. The article directly attributes multiple massive offshore tragedies over the last 40 years and the litigation that followed for helping to change safety regulations and practices which literally have saved hundreds of lives of offshore oil and gas workers, better protected the environment and preserved expensive drilling equipment and platforms from catastrophic failure.

It never ceases to amaze me that with advances in technology, that we still have to learn safety rules the old fashion way. Someone, or a lot of people, have to be hurt or killed first and a lawyer has to show a jury just how dangerous conditions were before change occurs. A friend once told me that safety rules and regulations are written in blood. The blood of those needlessly harmed by obvious and avoidable danger. You see, there simply is not a premium on developing and preventing injuries when technology pushes us into greater depths, greater heights and new dangerous situations. As long as it is more profitable to run known risks rather than prevent harm, rational executives will maximize returns. In English, safety will lag new and dangerous conditions because there is not an economic incentive to be safe. Lawsuits that occur after needless injury or death are a lagging indicator of safety changes that need to occur. Unfortunately, many executives responsible for safe operations have a political bent against the very changes that will make their operations safer and ultimately more profitable. Many of the executives in these heavy industries, like the oil and gas industry, feel that any safety regulation is one too many. That safety rules and regulations stifle industry and that often persons harmed by preventable negligence are all either faking or exaggerating their claims. The result is that these executives miss a valuable opportunity to make positive changes after someone is harmed because they choose to blame the victim or simply chalk up the injury as a cost of doing business. Stupidity is having to pay a steep price for education, and choosing not to learn the lessons.

When I was a young lawyer picking a jury in an injury case, I remember an exchange I had with a juror who also happened to be one of the chief injury claims adjusters for a major oil services company with locations throughout the world. I remember asking him about his work and dealing with claims. He told me in no uncertain terms that every case he had seen were all cases of fraud and all illegitimate. That the injured persons were never really hurt or always exaggerated their claims. He told me that he had been a claims professional for years and had never, not once, seen a legitimate claim. Being inquisitive and knowing his position in a very large company in a dangerous industry I asked him, “How many claims was your group (since he was the boss) responsible for evaluating last year?” His answer, “50,000.” So I followed up, “how many of those 50,000 injury claims were legitimate?” None. “How many were death cases………” Four. A stunning silence broke over the entire jury. Something that really mattered had just happened. At that point another juror stood up pointed at the claims adjuster and said, “it is because of people like you that people like that (pointing to my client) have to hire people like him (pointing at me).” It was a powerful moment.

I thought of that story when I read the story in the Houston Chronicle. Why? Because, that adjuster in my trial was so biased and bought into his belief system that he could not even consider that he might have a role in really objectively looking at these injuries and learning the safety lesson that they teach. If a case isn’t legitimate, there is nothing to learn from it. The next guy is not protected. Lawsuits have a way of removing the scales from the eyes of those who like the system as is. A good verdict can force a CEO or Board of Directors to really look at changes and demand changes that really improve our world. The next time you heard a politician or executive screaming about safety regulations as being bad or harmful or screaming about frivolous lawsuits; remember, that these rules were written in blood. The lawyers enforcing them are doing so ultimately to make the world a safer place and force those who made poor safety choices fully accountable for the injuries inflicted on others. It is the most effective tool we have to force needed change.