Helf v. Chevron U.S.A. Inc., 090415 UTSC, 20130700

Docket Nº20130700
Opinion JudgeDurham, Justice
Party NameJenna R. Helf, Appellant, v. Chevron U.S.A. Inc, Appellee.
AttorneyAttorneys: Troy L. Booher, Clemens A. Landau, Noella A. Sudbury, Edward P. Moriarity, Bradley L. Booke, Shandar S. Badaruddin, for appellant John A. Anderson, Jill M. Pohlman, Jason W. Crowell, Timothy M. Considine, for appellee
Judge PanelChief Justice Durrant, Justice Parrish, and Judge Toomey joined. Having recused himself, Justice Himonas does not participate herein; Court of Appeals Judge Kate A. Toomey sat. Associate Chief Justice Lee, dissenting:
Case DateSeptember 04, 2015
CourtSupreme Court of Utah

2015 UT 81

Jenna R. Helf, Appellant,

v.

Chevron U.S.A. Inc, Appellee.

No. 20130700

Supreme Court of Utah

September 4, 2015

Third District, Salt Lake The Honorable Anthony B. Quinn No. 030901338

Attorneys: Troy L. Booher, Clemens A. Landau, Noella A. Sudbury, Edward P. Moriarity, Bradley L. Booke, Shandar S. Badaruddin, for appellant

John A. Anderson, Jill M. Pohlman, Jason W. Crowell, Timothy M. Considine, for appellee

Chief Justice Durrant, Justice Parrish, and Judge Toomey joined.

Having recused himself, Justice Himonas does not participate herein; Court of Appeals Judge Kate A. Toomey sat.

OPINION

Durham, Justice

INTRODUCTION

¶1 Jenna Helf worked at an oil refinery operated by Chevron U.S.A. Inc. Her supervisor instructed her to add sulfuric acid to an open-air pit containing waste products from the refinery and she was injured by a poisonous gas produced by the resulting chemical reaction. Ms. Helf obtained workers' compensation benefits for her injuries. She then sued Chevron, alleging it was liable for an intentional tort because her supervisors knew that she would be injured when her immediate supervisor instructed her to add sulfuric acid to the pit.

¶2 Chevron moved for summary judgment, arguing that (1) Ms. Helf had not produced evidence that Chevron's managers knew or expected that Helf would be injured when her supervisor told her to add sulfuric acid to the pit and (2) Ms. Helf could not prevail as a matter of law because her election to obtain workers' compensation benefits for her injury barred her from seeking a tort remedy. The district court concluded that the election of remedies doctrine did not bar her suit. But the court agreed with Chevron that Ms. Helf failed to produce evidence that would support a conclusion that one of Chevron's mangers has the requisite knowledge or intent to support an intentional tort claim. The district court therefore granted summary judgment.

¶3 Ms. Helf now appeals, arguing that summary judgment was not appropriate. Chevron also purports to cross-appeal from the district court's ruling that the election of remedies doctrine does not bar Ms. Helf's tort claim.

¶4 We hold that the district court erred by granting summary judgment. Ms. Helf produced evidence that when a worker added sulfuric acid to the pit earlier that same day, a chemical reaction produced a poisonous gas that triggered emergency alarms located 150 feet from the pit and made workers in other areas of the refinery sick. There is a dispute of material fact precluding summary judgment because a reasonable jury could conclude that at least one of Chevron's managers knew that Ms. Helf would be injured when her supervisor instructed her to initiate this same process.

¶5 We also hold that the district court correctly ruled that the election of remedies doctrine does not bar her lawsuit. We agree with other courts that have held that workers are not required to choose between accepting workers' compensation benefits and an intentional tort claim.

¶6 We therefore reverse the district court's summary judgment ruling and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

BACKGROUND

¶7 Chevron operates an oil refinery near Salt Lake City. The refinery contains a concrete-lined, open-air pit that is used to process various liquid and solid waste products from the refinery. One of the liquid waste products collected in the pit is mildly acidic steam condensate from the refining process, which continuously flows into the pit. Before the pit is emptied, workers ensure that the pH level of the contents of the pit falls within an acceptable range. If the pH level of the pit is too high, workers add sulfuric acid to the pit by opening a valve. To mix the sulfuric acid with the contents of the pit, workers open another valve that forces compressed air below the surface and roils the pit. This process lowers the pH level of the contents of the pit and is called "neutralizing the pit" by refinery workers. Once the pH level is acceptable, the contents of the pit are then pumped into anther storage facility for further processing.

¶8 In December 1998, managers debated how to dispose of high-pH sludge that had accumulated in one of the tanks used by the refinery. They ultimately decided to transfer the caustic sludge to the open-air pit and lower the pH level by adding sulfuric acid. Some managers, however, expressed doubts as to whether this plan was appropriate.

¶9 In January 1999, Chevron managers put their plan into effect. Neither the pit operator, who had five years of experience, nor the day-shift supervisor, who had worked at the refinery for a much longer period of time, had ever observed the pit being used to process that type of caustic sludge. When the pit operator and the day-shift supervisor found out about the plan to process the sludge in the pit, both of them thought that it was not a "good idea." Despite their misgivings, someone directed workers to dump the sludge into the pit.

¶10 The day-shift supervisor instructed the pit operator to neutralize the contents of the pit. The operator partially opened the compressed-air valve in order to create a "small air roll" in the pit, limiting the speed with which the chemicals in the pit would mix together. The pit operator then opened the valve that released sulfuric acid into the pit. Because of the operator's years of experience, he immediately moved away from the pit and stood upwind in order to avoid breathing fumes caused by the neutralization process. He had also learned from experience to hold his breath when approaching the pit to turn off the sulfuric acid valve in order to avoid breathing toxic fumes.

¶11 The sulfuric acid interacted with sulfides contained in the sludge to create a cloud of hydrogen sulfide gas. Hydrogen sulfide is heavier than air and highly toxic. It causes illness, damage to internal organs, convulsions, coma, or death, depending on the level of exposure. The hydrogen sulfide gas traveled downwind and triggered an emergency alarm when it reached sensors designed to detect the gas located about 150 feet from the pit. Due to the alarm, the day-shift supervisor directed the pit operator to stop the flow of sulfuric acid into the pit.

¶12 The hydrogen sulfide gas drifted downwind towards other sections of the refinery. Workers throughout the refinery complained of the "rotten-egg" smell associated with the gas. Several workers also became ill, complaining of headaches, dizziness, and nausea-symptoms associated with lower-level exposure to hydrogen sulfide. At least one employee who worked in the administration building, which was located over 1, 000 feet from the open-air pit, got sick. Chevron managers evacuated the administration building and sent the employees home for the day.

¶13 Chevron managers knew that the hydrogen sulfide release was caused by adding sulfuric acid to the contents of the open-air pit. The managers concluded that the neutralization process should cease until they had completed an evaluation of the situation. By the end of the day shift, the evaluation had not been completed. But because the pit could not be emptied and liquid condensate from the refining process continued to flow into the pit throughout the day, it was almost overflowing when the night-shift began.

¶14 The day-shift supervisor met with the night-shift supervisor prior to the shift change. He informed the night-shift supervisor of the events that had transpired because of the neutralization process in the open-air pit, including the fact that alarms had sounded and that workers in the refinery became ill. The day-shift supervisor expressed concern about adding additional sulfuric acid to the pit during the night shift. He testified that the hydrogen sulfide release was a dangerous event and that the night-shift supervisor "should have had a clear expectation not to continue" the neutralization process.

¶15 During the shift change, the day-shift pit operator also told the night-shift pit operator, Ms. Helf, about the events that had transpired that day. He told Ms. Helf to call the night-shift supervisor before she did any work on the pit to make sure that it was authorized. Ms. Helf followed this advice and called the night-shift supervisor to inquire whether she should neutralize the contents of the pit. He told her to neutralize the pit. Ms. Helf asked again whether the night-shift manager was sure that she should add sulfuric acid to the pit and he confirmed that she should do so.

¶16 Pursuant to this instruction, Ms. Helf opened both the compressed air valve and the valve that released sulfuric acid in the pit. As had happened earlier during the day shift, the sulfuric acid reacted violently with the sludge that had been dumped in the pit, releasing hydrogen sulfide gas. But unlike the experienced day-shift operator who stood upwind from the pit, Ms. Helf, who was a new three-month trainee, did not take such a precaution. Instead, Ms. Helf walked along the perimeter of the pit from the south side to the east side. While she was walking along the eastern edge of the pit, she was "hit" by a cloud of toxic vapors from the pit that enveloped her. Ms. Helf's throat and chest seized and she fell to her knees. She then crawled to the north side of the pit and vomited. She believes that she lost consciousness at some point, but her memories of her exposure to the concentrated cloud of hydrogen sulfide gas are hazy and indistinct. As Ms. Helf was recovering, she received a radio call from the central control office instructing her to turn off the compressed air roiling the pit because hydrogen sulfide gas was making workers in other areas of the refinery sick, and she complied.

¶17 Ms. Helf suffered permanent injuries caused by her exposure to concentrated hydrogen sulfide gas. She has a seizure disorder and problems with memory and coordination. Ms. Helf can...

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