In case you’ve been living in your van down by the river, you’ve heard that a Texas jury awarded $2.9 million to landowners in a case involving alleged hydrocarbon exposure due to hydraulic fracturing operations. Here is the jury verdict. The Parrs sued Aruba Petroleum, alleging that drilling and fracing at Aruba’s 22 wells located within two miles of the Parr’s 40-acre property in Wise County was making them sick. They alleged a wide array of health issues, including nose bleeds, irregular heartbeat, muscle spasms, and open sores, all of which were allegedly caused by hazardous gases and airborne chemicals emanating from Aruba’s well sites.
The Original Claims
The original claims against a number of operators with wells in the area included assault, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligence, gross negligence, civil conspiracy, private nuisance and trespass. All defendants other than Aruba either settled before trial on undisclosed terms, were dismissed, or obtained summary judgment.
Proceeding on Nuisance
The case proceeded to the jury only on the nuisance claim. The award, for intentionally creating a private nuisance, comprised $275,000 for loss in property value, $2 million for past pain and suffering, $250,000 for future pain and suffering, and $400,000 for past mental anguish. The jury did not find evidence of the malice necessary to justify an award of punitive damages.
What effect will the verdict have? Although this is not the first lawsuit against an energy company for damages related to fracing, the verdict has been coined as the “first fracking verdict in U.S. history.” The trial judge has not yet entered a judgment on the verdict, which will almost certainly be challenged by the defendant in post-trial motions, and on appeal if necessary.
Whether a compressor station was a nuisance was discussed in one of our long-ago entries. See that entry for a general discussion of what constitutes a public nuisance in Texas.
It remains to be seen whether the Parrs will ultimately prevail in holding Aruba solely liable for their alleged injuries, when there are dozens of other wells and facilities operated by other companies within a two mile radius of the Parr home.
This verdict has inspired debate and raised questions. Will people living near oilfield operations begin running to the courthouse to file similar lawsuits, and will such claims ultimately succeed?
Several of our Gray Reed colleagues are participating in litigation similar to Parr. We are following Parr and other cases and from time to time will be commenting.
Acknowledging that those who don’t know better see fracing as malignant, we offer this musical interlude. (Tolerate the ad; the rest is worth it.)