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BP Refinery Sued for Negligence in Gas Release

Contractor company employees working at a British Petroleum (BP) refinery sued the oil company for negligence. Workers at the refinery reported a “weird” gas smell while they were employed at the factory. None of the gas monitors about the refinery sounded an alarm. About 100 employees went to the hospital but none showed any injury due to gas exposure.

The employees claim that the substance was carbon disulfide gas. The mask of one of the plaintiffs tested positive for traces of carbon disulfide gas but the lab technician who took charge of the mask noted that the mask had not been well maintained enough to be tested properly. When the district court found for the plaintiffs, BP appealed the verdict. BP argues that it was wrong for the trial judge to have instructed the jury on res ipsa loquitur and that without that instruction, the plaintiffs could not have shown that the company to be negligent.

Res ipsa loquitur is a doctrine used in certain types of cases when the circumstances surrounding the accident constitute sufficient evidence of the defendant’s negligence to support such a finding. Basically translated, the doctrine concludes that if an accident could not have come about by any other method than the one claimed, then the fact that the event happened is proof enough that it happened in the manner claimed; in other words, “the thing speaks for itself”. Res ipsa loquitur is applicable only when: (1) the character of the accident is such that it would not ordinarily occur in the absence of negligence; and (2) the cause of the injury is shown to have been under the management and control of the defendant. Using res ipsa loquitur, negligence can be inferred by the jury without evidence of wrongdoing.

The appellate court reversed the district court decision after concluding that a res ipsa instruction was inappropriate in this case. In a very similar previous case against Marathon Oil, the Texas Supreme Court found a res ipsa instruction inappropriate under the facts because escaping gas in the vicinity of a complex plant could be due to an unexpected and unforeseeable mechanical failure instead of necessarily being negligence.

None of the plaintiffs’ experts could identify where the odor came from or even if it was coming from BP’s property. The employees weren’t able to prove that the character of the accident is one that would not usually occur absent negligence or that the cause of injury was under BP’s control. Since neither of the two elements necessary for a res ipse loquitur instruction was satisfied, the district judge should not have instructed the jury on the doctrine. Without a res ipsa instruction, the plaintiffs were unable to meet their burden of proof as to negligence and the district court’s judgment was reversed.

If you believe you have a res ipsa loquitur negligence case, please contact the Berniard Law Firm for assistance.