The trial court jury award of $14.9 million to the family of a man killed in a fiery gas explosion was upheld this week by the New Mexico Court of Appeals. The arguments by Energen Resources Corp. that the jury’s award was excessive and therefore unconstitutional was rejected by the Court.
Earlier the Santa Fe jury had found that after a trial in 2006, the oil and gas company was negligent and its conduct reckless in the death of John Stapleton, aged 19.
Stapleton died in 2002, while in an area popular with off-road enthusiasts when he backed his car into an unfenced, unprotected natural gas wellhead. The wellhead exploded, and he burned to death.
His family was awarded $1.92 million in compensatory damages and $13 million in punitive damages.
The Appeals Court said Energen’s conduct was sufficiently reckless to support a substantial award of punitive damages.
The Court found that Energen knew that there was a hazard of someone colliding with the wellhead, knew that if that happened serious bodily harm or death could result, knew that the well site was in a highly traveled area, knew that erecting a barricade or fence would prevent the hazard, and still chose not to barricade the well site.
Legal Analysis: This case should be a wake up call to Oil and Gas companies who put profits before the health and welfare of the public.