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Alaska compensation board rules against drilling company, awards $80,000 and fees to injured employee

The Alaska Workers' Compensation Board ruled that Nabors Alaska Drilling owes compensation and other costs to a former employee who suffered a life-changing traumatic head injury in 2011.

Mitch McNamee, who struck his head after slipping on oily drilling mud on Nabors drill rig 245 at a North Slope field, argued in the case that the company tried to cover up the accident that led to memory loss, plus difficulty walking and performing everyday tasks.

The board said it didn't find Nabors' witnesses, current and former employees of the company, to be credible, according to the 76-page decision, made on Jan. 11 by three board members including Chair Robert Vollmer.

McNamee's case was first reported by the Houston Chronicle as part of a 2014 investigative series into injuries and deaths in the U.S. oil and gas industry, "Peril in the Oil Patch."

Nabors did not appeal the decision within the required 30-day period. Nabors officials declined to comment for this article.

McNamee has received $80,000 from Nabors for workers compensation payments, said his daughter, Christy Ferrell, 42, last week. Nabors must also pay $120,000 in legal fees, as well as medical costs for past and continuing care related to the injury. Ferrell brought the claim against Nabors in 2013.

McNamee, now 68, says the injury ended his 20-year career with Nabors.

The Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board on Jan. 11 decided in favor of Mitch McNamee, now 68, in his claim against Nabors Alaska Drilling, over a disputed 2011 accident on a Nabors drilling rig. Christy Ferrell, shown with her father, helped him pursue the case. (Photo provided Christy Ferrell)

The decision was "fair," he said last week. "I didn't get a whole lot out of the judgment, but I got some. And some of the truth came out."

Nabors maintained McNamee didn't fall at work, or at least, not in the way he described it, the decision says.

The board said the Nabors witnesses had argued they didn't know about the accident or respond to it, despite evidence they did, according to the decision.

The decision describes the explanations of Nabors witnesses as "tortured," "puzzling," "peculiar," and "disingenuous."

McNamee says he slipped on the drilling mud in summer 2011, falling perhaps four feet into an area used for moving pipe.

His head slammed a surface, knocking off his hard hat. He didn't immediately know he'd been severely injured, and didn't immediately report what happened.

"The board's independent doctor said someone with an injury like that would not have realized the extent of their injury," Ferrell said. "And that if you would have talked to him, he would have told you he's fine."

The injury began manifesting itself weeks after the accident. It aggravated a pre-existing condition, causing excess spinal fluid to build on the brain, leading to forgetfulness and imbalance, according to the decision.

Shortly after the accident, Nabors moved McNamee off the rig to work at another North Slope location, citing performance concerns.

On Oct. 16, 2011, Nabors flew him back to Anchorage. The company had laid him off, saying there wasn't enough work, the decision says.

That's when McNamee called an official at Nabors' human resources department, asking about medical options and describing the accident. McNamee didn't file a written injury report, the decision says.

The company maintained that he had a stroke, McNamee testified.

Ferrell got medical help for McNamee starting in 2012, after moving him from Anchorage to California where she lives. By then, McNamee was confused, had trouble caring for himself and needed a walker.

Nabors refused to help with costs, Ferrell said. She said the company wouldn't admit the accident happened, though individual employees told her differently.

McNamee said by phone last week that much of his memory returned after brain surgery in 2012 removed the excess fluid, allowing him to help his daughter with the case.

Ferrell said proving her father right was worth the years-long fight.

"I don't care what company it is, you don't treat employees this way," she said.

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