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GEORGE v. INGERSOLL-RAND COMPANY

October 13, 2005.

ALAN GEORGE, Plaintiff,
v.
INGERSOLL-RAND COMPANY, Defendant.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: THOMAS HARDIMAN, District Judge

OPINION

This products liability action arises from an accident that occurred on August 29, 2001, when Plaintiff Alan George (George) was struck by a falling drill rod as he operated the winch on an RD-20 mobile gas drilling rig (RD-20) manufactured by Defendant Ingersoll-Rand.

George claims that the RD-20 was defective because it lacked overhead protection known as a guard assembly for the winch operator. George further asserts that a guard assembly that was later incorporated into the design of the RD-20 would have protected him from the known danger of falling drill rods.

  Defendant Ingersoll-Rand replies that the guard assembly later incorporated into the design of the RD-20 was intended for an entirely different purpose and function, viz., to protect winch operators during the loading process from laterally swinging drill rods. Ingersoll-Rand argues that because it is impossible to "design out" the known hazard of falling drill rods, and because the design of a guard assembly to provide overhead protection for the winch operator from falling drill rods was not feasible, it warned against the hazard of falling pipe by affixing decals on the RD-20 near the winch operator's control panel. Ingersoll-Rand also argues that its process — by which workers control the drill rods with a drill string, a rod handling tool and rod loader during the loading or unloading process — is a design that prevents or guards against falling drill rods.

  I. Findings of Fact*fn1

  A. The RD-20, Drill Rods and the Drilling Process

  The RD-20 at issue was manufactured to customer specifications and sold in 1991 to Kinzer Well Drilling, in Pikesville, Kentucky and was later purchased by George's employer, Dallas-Morris Drilling. The RD-20 is a mobile rig used to drill for natural gas. Holes are drilled by a succession of thirty-foot rods, each of which weighs in excess of five hundred pounds.

  The RD-20 does not have a carousel to store multiple drill rods on the rig itself. Thus, each drill rod must be lifted and secured during the loading process and released and lowered during the unloading process. The rods are loaded and unloaded by two workers, one of whom operates the winch while another worker near the rig guides the rods. The drill rod is secured by a "rod handling tool," a one inch round steel pipe the same length as the drill rod, which holds and guides the drill rod as it is lifted by the winch hoist and placed into the rod holder.

  The purpose of the rod handling tool is to facilitate the movement of the drill rod from a horizontal position where it is stored to a vertical position in the rod holder of the drill rig. The pin end of the rod handling tool is shaped like a hook with an arrow-end that is manually inserted into one end of the drill rod, while a bracket at the other end of the rod handling tool snaps into an indentation at the other end of the drill rod, securing both ends. There is a lock on the rod handling tool that slides up beside the bracket to ensure that the rod remains in place. At approximately forty-eight inch intervals along the length of the tool, there are brackets or guides which also stabilize the drill rod during both the loading and unloading processes.

  After the drill rod is secured to the rod handling tool, it is attached to a winch hoist, lifted, moved inboard of the derrick, placed in the rod holder and then used to drill into the earth. At the conclusion of the drilling process, the drill rod is extracted from the ground, moved outboard of the derrick by the rod holder, secured to the rod handling tool, lowered by the winch hoist and pulled from a vertical position parallel to the derrick to a horizontal position where it is stored. The manipulation of the winch hoist and the securing of the rod handling tool to the drill rod is performed by the winch operator, who is also known as the drill helper.

  The drilling process usually involves three to four individuals actually operating the drill: the drill operator, who is positioned at the drill control panel; the winch operator, who secures the rod handling tool to the drill rod and operates the winch; the "tool pusher," or foreman, who oversees the job; and a "puller" who "runs the pipe," manually pulling the drill rod ends and aligning them on the trailer.

  Despite the foregoing precautions, falling drill rods are a known hazard in the industry. Tom Geer (Geer), who was the drill operator for Dallas-Morris Drilling on the night in question, testified that in his ten years in the gas drilling industry, he worked exclusively on Ingersoll-Rand RD-20's. He had seen drill rods fall during the unloading process on several occasions prior to the George incident and on at least three or four occasions since then. These incidents all involved the Ingersoll-Rand RD-20 and drill rods made of the same material and measuring the same length as those used on the day George was injured. In addition, Randy Wile, who was the tool pusher and supervisor of George's rig, has seen drill rods fall on several occasions. Wile worked in the gas drilling industry from 1976 to 2002, including working exclusively on RD-20s from 1989 to 2002 for Dallas-Morris Drilling. Wile has seen drill rods fall on six occasions when he was on site, including twice when he was the winch operator. He avoided injury on those occasions by abandoning the winch operator's platform and running out of the way of the falling drill rods.

  There is no question that Ingersoll-Rand was aware that falling drill rods are a known hazard in the gas drilling industry. Attached at the winch operator's station on every RD-20 rig is the following decal:
B. Plaintiff's Accident
  On August 29, 2001, George began work as the winch operator of the RD-20 at 7:00 p.m.*fn2 The accident occurred during the eleventh hour of a twelve hour shift. For the first three hours of the shift, George and drill operator Geer performed the drilling process themselves because the rig hand scheduled to work that evening did not appear for work. Geer and George successfully loaded thirty to forty drill rods despite using a brand new rod handling tool that did not fit properly onto the drill rods.*fn3 Although George mentioned the problem to Geer, they continued to use the new tool.

  Hours later, after George and Geer had finished the loading and drilling process, Bruce Dashner (Dashner) arrived. Because Dashner had never acted as a rig hand before that night, George instructed him regarding how to unload the drill rods. The crew successfully unloaded approximately thirty drill rods onto a flatbed trailer without incident. The accident occurred as the crew began to unload the first drill rod onto the second flatbed trailer. As George was using the winch controls to lift the rod handling tool to clamp it onto the drill rod, he saw the pin enter the drill rod. He then raised the rod handling tool and secured the c-clip onto the bottom of the drill rod. George then lifted the tool and the drill rod out of the bottom of the carousel and swung the top of the drill rod and tool out of the carousel. George observed the top of the tool and the drill rod as he lifted them out of the carousel. He then pushed the bottom of the drill rod and tool to Dashner, who was on the flatbed trailer. The trailer was parked two or three feet directly behind the RD-20. Dashner grabbed the tool and the attached drill rod and began pulling them toward the trailer. Once the drill rod and tool cleared the trailer, George began to let the rod down with the winch controls. The ...


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