HOUSTON – In a decision filed Sept. 21, the 14th Court of Appeals reversed a trial court’s granting of summary judgment in a case accusing National Oilwell Varco (NOV) of negligence.

The lawsuit was filed by family of Amanda Bujnoch, who died when the vehicle she had been a passenger in rolled over after driving over oil-based mud cuttings on the road. Bujnoch’s family accused NOV of negligence for failing to properly secure the load of mud in the truck prior to it driving on the road.

The trial court granted NOV’s motion for summary judgment, agreeing that it was not NOV’s duty to secure the load, but the independent trucking company it had hired to transport it, Big Red. The plaintiffs appealed the decision to the 14th Court of Appeals.

In the appellate court’s opinion, written by Justice Ken Wise with Chief Justice Kem Thompson Frost and Justice Tracy Christopher concurring, the court considered NOV’s arguments that “it owed no duty to Amanda as a matter of law because: Big Red had a non-delegable duty to secure the load under federal and state regulations; NOV’s internal policies did not create a duty to secure the load of an independent contractor; and it was not foreseeable that Big Red would act in a negligent manner.”

Regarding NOV’s first argument, the court considered the company’s use of what it refers to as the “Savage rule,” as well as federal regulations, that “require drivers to inspect the security of cargo both before driving a truck and during transport.” It points out that these cases apply to injuries of those within the trucking industry, but not to innocent third parties, like Bujnoch.

NOV further argued that it was not responsible for ensuring that an independent contractor secured its load prior to driving, and that that duty fell solely on Big Red. In considering this argument, Wise explains that “Texas law generally imposes no duty to take action to prevent harm to others absent certain special relationships or circumstances. [...] But, if a party negligently creates a dangerous situation, the party then has a duty ‘to do something about it to prevent injury to others if it reasonably appears or should appear to him that others in the exercise of their lawful rights may be injured thereby.’”

Because an NOV employee was the one who loaded the trailer, the court determined that NOV was not a mere bystander, but “was required to use reasonable care in [loading the mud] to prevent an unreasonable risk of harm to other motorists who would be affected if the load was inadequately secured,” according to Wise’s opinion. 

This is particularly so because the NOV employee who loaded the mud conceded that part of his responsibility in doing so was to ensure that the driver secures the load, but he had failed to do so in this case, the opinion states.

That employee’s recognition that leaving the load unsecured could be dangerous confirmed for the court that NOV had a duty to the public to prevent injury from any spillage, while also addressing the company’s third argument that Big Red’s negligence was unforeseeable. 

“NOV had a ‘safe work’ procedure to verify that truck drivers secured their loads, and NOV knew that the driver did not get out of the truck and walk around to do any type of verification that the load was secure,” writes Wise.

The court determined that the trial court erred in granting NOV’s motion for summary judgment and reversed that decision, remanding it to the trial court for further proceedings.

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