Wyo. SC backs arbitrator in horseplay case against BP

Jessica M. Karmasek Apr. 1, 2011, 11:31am

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (Legal Newsline) - The Wyoming Supreme Court last week upheld a lower court's ruling denying a man's motion to have an arbitrator's decision in favor of oil giant BP vacated.

Ronald Worman was working for Nabors Drilling Company on an oil rig in Carbon County, Wyo., in August 2006. The well site was owned and operated by BP. BP's so-called "company man" on the site was Wayne Sanford.

Worman said one day "without warning, provocation or any cause" Sanford grabbed him and put him in a head lock and squeezed. Worman said he felt a "popping sensation" in his neck and immediately experienced severe pain. Minutes later, Sanford put his hands on Worman's neck and started to choke him.

After the incident, Worman filed a lawsuit against Sanford, BP and two co-workers, claiming he had sustained serious and permanent injury to his neck.

BP filed a motion in district court seeking to compel arbitration of the claims, asserting that arbitration was required pursuant to agreements among BP, Nabors Drilling and the employees of Nabors. The district court stayed the litigation and ordered the parties to submit to arbitration.

At some point, Worman reached settlement agreements with the other defendants, and arbitration proceeded only on his claims against BP.

The arbitrator ruled that BP was liable for Sanford's actions only if they were "within the scope of employment or apparent scope of authority." She concluded that Sanford''s actions constituted "horseplay" that was "motivated by personal reasons" and "outside the scope of his authority." On that basis, she ruled that BP was not liable to Worman.

Worman asked the district court to vacate the arbitrator's decision, asserting that it reflected a "manifest mistake of Wyoming law."

The district court concluded that manifest mistake of law was not one of the grounds available for vacating this arbitration award, but even if it were, the arbitrator had not made a manifest mistake of Wyoming law. It denied Worman's motion, and he appealed to the state Supreme Court.

The Court, in its nine-page opinion filed March 25, affirmed the district court's decision.

Justice E. James Burke, who authored the opinion, wrote that the district court "carefully evaluated" the arbitrator's decision in light of applicable state law.

"To show that the arbitrator's award could be vacated for a manifest mistake of law, Mr. Worman cannot rely on mere legal error. The standard is much higher than that, and has been characterized as 'highly deferential,'" Burke wrote for the Court.

The Court also determined, like the arbitrator and district court, that Sanford was in legal effect an employee of BP, but was acting "outside the scope and course" of his employment when he injured Worman.

The Court pointed to the district court's analysis: "(N)o part of Sanford's engaging in horseplay was directed at any intention to serve BP. (He) was not, even in part, furthering BP's interests when he intentionally placed Worman in a headlock."

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by e-mail at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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