Judge: Oil field work caused Weld County man's death

Published on 07/31/2015

LOVELAND — Jim Freemyer's widow never believed her husband's poor health abruptly killed him last summer, but, rather, what he encountered while working the Weld County oil patch.

A state judge agreed and ruled this month that Connie Freemyer was owed full workman's compensation benefits for her husband's death in July 2014.

It is a decision that could have far-reaching implications in the oil and gas industry as federal health officials have been taking a closer look at the dangers of "tank gauging."

Freemyer family attorney Brett Busch said that although the ruling allows the family to move forward, it also may prompt the oil and gas industry to make changes to safeguard workers "in this dangerous industry," Busch said.

"I think the big picture here is not whether more claims will be brought," he said, "but hopefully less claims will exist because of better safety protocol."

The 59-year-old truck driver died after he inhaled a toxic mix of deadly hydrocarbon chemicals while measuring oil levels after opening a tank hatch.

Freemyer's death was among nine that gained national attention from federal health officials who found the oil field workers fell victim to high-pressure exposure to hydrocarbons on remote sites. Once the fatalities were tied together, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a national warning in April over tank gauging.

The ruling by Administrative Law Judge Peter Cannici on behalf of Connie Freemyer came over the objections of Now or Never Trucking in Greeley — Jim Freemyer's employer — and Pinnacol Assurance — which denied a claim for death benefits.

Connie Freemyer will receive nearly $530 per week until she dies. She will also get $7,000 to defray the cost of her husband's funeral.

Pinnacol argued that Freemyer's poorly controlled type II diabetes, hypertension and coronary artery disease likely caused his demise, as did his lackluster attention to safety protocols.

But Cannici, citing medical testimony from a two-day hearing held this month, ruled that Freemyer died as a result of the low oxygen and high hydrocarbon environment while gauging oil tanks.

"His job duties and work environment aggravated, accelerated or combined with his pre-existing coronary artery disease to cause his death on July 13, 2014," Cannici said.

Safety resources

Pinnacol spokeswoman Kim Singer said the company wants to make sure its policy holders are aware of safety resources available to them to address the issue of toxic fumes in gas gauging.

"We are sharing resources from ... the Centers for Disease Control," she said, "and our internal oil and gas safety expert is also developing materials."

Cannici noted that Freemyer's respirator couldn't properly protect him from the exposures he encountered while gauging tanks because it was designed to filter air rather than supply oxygen.

Connie Freemyer declined to comment, but Busch said the family wasn't surprised at Cannici's decision, given the evidence presented during the hearing.

"Nevertheless, they are grateful for Judge Cannici's careful and fair interpretation of the facts, which ultimately contradicted Now or Never Trucking and Pinnacol Assurance's defense that Mr. Freemyer died from natural causes," Busch said.

Worker deaths

Freemyer was among nine oil field workers who died in the past five years while working at crude oil production tanks and measuring the level of oil or other byproducts in tanks. Last year, the family of a worker who died in North Dakota under similar circumstances was awarded death benefits in a ruling by that state's Supreme Court.

Originally, all the workers were thought to have died from natural causes or because of underlying health problems, which meant work-related death benefits weren't awarded.

The exposure happens when hatches on production tanks are opened manually and a plume of hydrocarbon gases and vapors are released under high pressure.

Those who are exposed can suffer from disorientation and, in some cases, sudden death.

Cannici ruled correctly in awarding full death benefits to Connie Freemyer and to deny allegations that Jim Freemyer violated safety rules, Busch said.

"Had those allegations been successful, Mrs. Freemyer's benefits would have been cut by 50 percent," Busch said.

Now or Never Trucking declined to comment. Singer said there was evidence Freemyer had pre-existing health conditions and did not follow safety protocols.

Still, she said the company will not appeal.

"Our priority right now is taking care of Ms. Freemyer and making sure that she receives her compensation promptly," Singer said.

Credit of article: http://www.denverpost.com/news/ci_28552933/colorado-judge-awards-benefits-from-oil-patch-death

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