The New Mexico state Court of Appeals recently upheld the $14.9 million award a Santa Fe, New Mexico jury gave to the family of a man who died from the personal injuries he sustained in a fiery explosion after backing his vehicle into a gas well near Farmington, New Mexico.
On September 22, the appellate court rejected the arguments of Energen Resources Corp. that the award was excessive and unconstitutional.
In the original trial, which lasted six days, the jury determined negligence and reckless conduct on the part of the oil and gas company in the wrongful death of 19-year-old John Everett Stapleton.
On July 21, 2002, Stapleton was at an area popular with young people and off-road enthusiasts when he backed his car into a natural gas wellhead that was not properly protected or fenced in. The wellhead exploded, causing him to burn to death.
The jury awarded his family compensatory damages of $1.92 and punitive damages of $13 million.
A three-judge panel on the appellate court agreed with the jury, saying that Energen’s conduct was sufficiently reckless for a substantial punitive damage award.
According to the court, Energen was aware there was a hazard of a collision with the wellhead and that such a collision could result in serious bodily harm or death as well as knowing that the well was located in a heavily traveled area and that placing a fence or barricade around the wellhead would prevent the hazard, but still failed to do so.
According to the judges, the company showed recklessness and a disregard for public safety by taking no action to protect the wellheads from the time it acquired the well in 1997 until the accident in 2002.
The family of 20-year-old Cody Amezcua, a second person killed in the accident, settled its suit against Energen for an undisclosed amount before going to trial.