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Tulip Industries Inc. v. J. Lauhon Logging Inc.

United States District Court, W.D. Louisiana, Monroe Division

January 9, 2020

TULIP INDUSTRIES, INC.
v.
J. LAUHON LOGGING, INC.

          KAREN L. HAYES JUDGE

          ORDER

          TERRY A. DOUGHTY UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         RULING

         Pending before the Court is a Motion for Summary Judgment filed by Defendant J. Lauhon Logging, Inc., (“JLL”) [Doc. No. 27]. Plaintiff Tulip Industries, Inc., (“Tulip”) has filed an opposition [Doc. No. 29].

         For the following reasons, JLL's motion is DENIED.

         I. RELEVANT FACTS

         Tulip filed this lawsuit against JLL to recover damages, including clean-up costs, allegedly incurred as a result of JLL's negligence. Tulip alleges that Zack Lauhon (“Lauhon”), an employee of JLL, backed a log cutter over a gas well belonging to Tulip during logging operations in Morehouse Parish, Louisiana.

         Tulip originally filed suit in the Fourth Judicial District Court for Morehouse Parish, Louisiana, on January 16, 2019. JLL removed the case to this Court on March 1, 2019. [Doc. No. 1]. On March 8, 2019, JLL filed an Answer in which it denied all liability and alternatively asserted the affirmative defense of comparative fault [Doc. No. 5].

         The accident occurred on August 23, 2018. Lauhon was cutting and stacking trees in his cutter, and the right rear portion of his machine knocked off the well cap of a Tulip gas well, causing blue flames, salt water, sand, and natural gas to erupt from the open wellhead [Doc. No. 27-3]. Tulip contends that JLL negligently rolled over the wellhead because its well site was routinely inspected and maintained, the well was in plain sight, and it had a visible sign marking its location.

         JLL, on the other hand, contends that the well was not in plain sight, but was instead concealed inside a thicket and camouflaged by overgrowth, and, further, it was not properly marked or maintained. JLL therefore asserts in its Motion for Summary Judgment that it was not at fault, has no liability, and is entitled to judgment as a matter of law dismissing all claims against it.

         In support of its motion, JLL relies on the testimony of Lauhon and James Phillips (“Phillips”), the Tulip employee who was responsible for inspecting and maintaining Tulip's well sites in Morehouse Parish. Phillips testified that: (1) the well site was only inspected about once a year and it had not been inspected since May (more than 3 months before the accident); (2) he only does physical inspections when he deems it necessary and he goes by to check the wells when he feels like the grass may be getting high and he needs to go; (3) the gas well is only 2 to 2-1/2 feet tall; (4) there is a small sign that hangs on one side of the well, and it only hangs about 10 inches above the ground (about mid-calf height); (5) the sign was starting to get overgrown in May when it was last inspected; and (6) overgrowth of vegetation is a common problem with well sites that are located in forested areas. [Doc. No. 27-4]. Lauhon testified that if the sign had been present, he would not have run over the well. [Doc. No. 27-3]. Based on the foregoing, JLL argues there is no basis upon which Tulip can create an issue of fact as to whether JLL knew or should have known about the well site and failed to avoid it.

         Tulip opposes the motion for summary judgment, offering the declarations of Phillips and Brett Thompson (“Thompson”). Phillips declares that: (1) anyone conducting forestry operations in the Monroe Gas Field, where the incident occurred, should be aware that it is riddled with producing and non-producing gas wells; (2) Tulip owns 332 wells in the Monroe Gas field; (3) JLL had conducted forestry operations on the land in 2017 and 2018, using a dirt road just wide enough for a pickup up truck, leading from Prairie Debutte Road straight toward the gas well, curving around to the right to avoid the gas well, and therefore should have been aware of the presence of the well; (4) pictures taken on the day of the incident show that the area was not heavily forested and there was a proper sign on the well; and (5) in the pictures the well sign is crumpled and lying beside the well only because it was damaged by JLL. [Doc. Nos. 32-1]. Thompson, an agent of the Louisiana Department of Conservation, saw the damaged well head the day of the incident and took pictures. [Doc. No. 32-3]. Tulip concludes that it is obvious the damages were caused by the negligence of JLL, but not obvious enough for Tulip to file its own motion for summary judgment. Tulip, therefore, seeks a denial of JLL's motion for summary judgment.

         The matter has been fully briefed, and the Court is prepared to rule.

         II. ...


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