In Southcross Energy v Gonzalez, the Texas 4th Court of Appeals, an intermediate appellate court, addressed safety responsibilities of an owner and operator of a pipeline.  The Court stated Southcross had a nondelegable duty to ensure hot taps are performed by a qualified crew.  Also, when its employee worked together with contractors, Southcross was responsible for injuries to a contractor’s employee caused by the Southcross employee’s negligence.

Hot Taps Used for Valve Replacement
A “hot tap” is a procedure used to cut into a gas pipeline while gas is still flowing through it.  The procedure is known to create ignition hazards that could lead to fire or explosion.  Southcross determined it needed to use hot taps to replace a pipeline valve but did not have the expertise.  It hired contractors to supply a hot tap machine and do the work.

Hot Tap Crew Not Qualified
Among the many problems encountered during this work, the contractor sent only one person skilled in operating the hot tap machine, even though its policies required two for each job.  When the single qualified operator became fatigued, an unqualified Southcross employee began operating it.  During this time, the machine overpressurized and exploded, killing the Southcross employee and Gonzalez, a contractor’s employee.

The 4th Court upheld a jury’s finding that Southcoss’s negligence caused Gonzalez’s death.  The negligence included Southcross’s failure to ensure a qualified crew performed the hot tap, a nondelegable duty under federal and state pipeline safety rules.  Further, the jury found the Southcross employee was negligent in operating the machine; Southcross was responsible for injuries caused by its employee’s negligence.

Exceptions that Can Create Liability to Owners
An owner is usually not responsible for an injury to a contractor’s employees sustained during the contractor’s work.  An exception is when the injury is caused by the owner’s negligence in performing a nondelegable duty.  Another exception is when the negligent act of an owner’s employee causes the injury.

To read the opinion