Bryant v. Hornbuckle, 86-99

Citation728 P.2d 1132
Decision Date10 December 1986
Docket NumberNo. 86-99,86-99
PartiesJames Vernon BRYANT, Appellant (Plaintiff), v. Brent HORNBUCKLE, Appellee (Defendant), Amoco Oil Company, a Maryland corporation, (Defendant).
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Wyoming

Robert C. Wilson, Casper, for appellant.

John E. Brooks and John I. Henley of Vlastos, Brooks & Henley, and David E. Westling, (argued), Casper, for appellee.

Before THOMAS, C.J., and BROWN, CARDINE, URBIGKIT and MACY, JJ.

CARDINE, Justice.

In this personal injury action appellant James Bryant appeals from an order granting summary judgment in favor of appellee Brent Hornbuckle. The sole issue we must decide is whether the trial court correctly determined that no genuine issue of material fact existed on the question of whether appellee's conduct constituted culpable negligence of a coemployee under § 27-12-103, W.S.1977.

We affirm.

Appellant's claim arises from injuries sustained while operating a water truck for Hornbuckle Contracting. At the time appellant's injuries occurred, Hornbuckle Contracting was engaged in a water hauling job for Amoco Production Company which involved the hauling of fresh water to Amoco's well site and hauling waste production water from the site. Waste production water normally contained some petroleum residues. Appellant drove and operated one of the trucks used to haul the water. The truck was equipped with a pressurized holding tank, air pump, hose, and a valve which could be placed in an open or shut position. If the valve was mistakenly left in the shut position in the wintertime, it could become frozen in that position. When this occurred, the truck operator could free the valve by applying heat with a butane torch. This procedure for thawing frozen valves was widely used in the water hauling industry, and it was a procedure that foreman Brent Hornbuckle instructed his truck operators to follow.

When appellant showed up for work on January 20, 1982, he discovered that the valve on the truck that he was to operate that day was frozen shut. He proceeded to thaw the valve with a butane torch, as he had done some twenty times before without incident. But this time disaster struck. After applying heat for 20 or 30 minutes, appellant opened the valve and the fumes from the tank ignited. An instantaneous explosion occurred, hurling appellant to the ground and igniting his clothing. He rolled on the ground but in his panic rolled too quickly to put out the flames. Another driver ran to the scene, helped appellant to a snowy area, and jumped on him, smothering the fire with his body.

As a result of the accident appellant sustained severe burns over his upper body, causing scarring and disfigurement and necessitating several skin grafting operations. He also suffered a dislocated shoulder. Appellant filed a worker's compensation claim from which he received $12,000 in temporary benefits, a $12,000 permanent disability award, and payment of medical expenses.

Appellant has now filed suit against Brent Hornbuckle and Amoco, alleging that both parties were negligent in failing to adequately train and supervise him and failing to warn him of the dangers involved in the valve thawing procedure. In order to recover against Brent Hornbuckle and avoid the exclusive remedy provision of the Wyoming Worker's Compensation Act, appellant must demonstrate that Mr. Hornbuckle was a "culpably negligent" coemployee. Section 27-12-103, W.S.1977.

A party seeking summary judgment has the burden of demonstrating that there is no genuine issue of material fact and that he is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. O'Donnell v. City of Casper, Wyo., 696 P.2d 1278, 1281 (1985). The purpose of summary judgment is to eliminate formal trials where only questions of law are involved and to pierce the formal allegations and reach the merits of a controversy where no material issue of fact is present. England v. Simmons, Wyo., 728 P.2d 1137 (1986). The standards we use in reviewing a trial court's grant or denial of summary judgment are stated in England v. Simmons, supra:

" 'When reviewing a summary judgment on appeal, we review the judgment in the same light as the district court, using the same information. * * * Upon examination of a summary judgment, we view the record from the vantage point most favorable to the party opposing the motion, giving him all favorable inferences which may be drawn from the facts.' " (Citations omitted.) at 1141, quoting Garner v. Hickman, Wyo., 709 P.2d 407, 410 (1985).

In support of his motion, Mr. Hornbuckle filed an affidavit in which he stated that the butane torch method for thawing frozen valves was standard in the water hauling industry. He also stated that during his experience with Hornbuckle Contracting he was aware of no other incidents like the one involving appellant and that he "certainly did not expect or anticipate such an occurrence."

In resistance to the motion for summary judgment, appellant filed the affidavit of Ray Smith, the safety director for a local trucking company. In that affidavit Mr. Smith made the following statements:

"[I]t would be dangerous and hazardous to use a butane torch to thaw a frozen valve on a tank which had been used to haul water from a treator pit because of the possibility [of] crude oil residue in treator pit water.

"[T]he hazardous and dangerous nature of using a butane torch to thaw a frozen valve on a tank that has hauled anything other than fresh water has been widely known in the industry for a considerable length of time and has been a widely known fact during all of my working experience in the oil industry.

"There are several other methods which can be used to thaw a frozen valve other than using a butane torch * * *.

"Although a butane torch is commonly used to thaw frozen water valves on water tanks in the oil industry, it is nonetheless an unsafe and dangerous operation.

"In my opinion, it would be a reckless and dangerous procedure to allow the use or use a butane torch to thaw a frozen valve on a tank that has hauled anything other than fresh water without fully being aware of the dangerous and hazardous condition and possible consequences."

Also appearing in the record is a portion of appellant's deposition which contains the following exchange between appellant and Mr. Hornbuckle's attorney:

"Q. And just to make sure I've got this right, you don't recall any conversations with either of the Hornbuckles or anybody else working for Hornbuckle about this accident that you specifically recall?

"A. I've talked to my brother about it, and he was working at the time for them.

"Q. What has he told you? Has he had conversations with the Hornbuckles that he told you about?

"A. He mentioned that after this happened--I don't know if it was Brent or Dick [appellee's father], but I think Brent had said, you know, 'Gosh, we always wondered if something like that could happen. We didn't know.' "

Appellant's deposition also reveals the fact that appellee himself used the butane torch method for thawing frozen valves and that he personally demonstrated the technique for...

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