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Bakken worker death caused by toxic gas, lawsuit claims

The family of a man found dead atop an oil collection tank in the North Dakota oil patch in 2013 is suing the Texas-based company the deceased was working for.

As reported by the Billings Gazette, on July 18, 2013, the body of Blaine P. Otto of Sidney, Montana, was discovered on a catwalk above the tanks where he was checking oil levels. Bradley T. Otto, Blaine’s brother, is representing the estate of the deceased and is suing Newfield Exploration Co.

The company has denied any responsibility for Otto’s death. The official death certificate states that the 39-year-old died from natural causes due to heart problems and obesity. Otto’s family, however, believes he was killed by toxic gasses that were released upon opening of the hatch at the site located in McKenzie County.

An investigator that has determined the cause of death in other, similar oilfield worker deaths, told the Tribune that heart attacks are often wrongly attributed to the cause of death when workers are exposed to the released toxic gases. By the time the victims are found, the concentration of harmful gases have usually dissipated. The investigator said that when coroners are evaluating a scene such as this, they will check for natural causes of death because there is no obvious evidence of an accident.

The lawsuit points to nine other deaths which have occurred in the Bakken oilfields under similar circumstances. The complaint contends that Newfield had a responsibility to minimize the dangers of its well site, especially when hazardous gas vapors are a known health risk to workers in the Bakken. The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Billings, Montana, in July and is seeking undefined damages.

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