Nuisance Verdicts in the Barnett Shale: Two claims arising out of the same natural gas operations yield two very different verdicts

by King & Spalding

On April 10, 2014, a Fort Worth jury rejected a landowner's nuisance claim against a well operator in Teri Anglim v. Chesapeake Operating Inc., 2011-008256-1. Plaintiff Teri Anglim claimed that Chesapeake's operations at two wells—the Wedgewood 1H and the Valkyrie 1H—located approximately 595 feet from her home in the Barnett Shale released offensive substances that contaminated the air around her home, constituting a private nuisance.

Anglim further alleged that the "scope of operations at the Chesapeake drill site is extensive," that "large vehicles are constantly arriving and departing the facility," that loud and constant noises originated at the site, and that the site's mere presence was a nuisance. The jury rejected these arguments, unanimously finding that Chesapeake's conduct was not abnormal and out of place in its surroundings.

But just one month later, on May 23, 2014, another jury in Fort Worth awarded a couple $20,000 for their private nuisance claim against Chesapeake related to the same wells. Samuel and Jane Crowder, represented by the same lawyer as Ms. Anglim, claimed that Chesapeake's operations at the Wedgewood and Valkyrie wells, which were located approximately 329 feet from their home in the Barnett Shale, constituted a nuisance. The jury refused to find a permanent nuisance, but found that Chesapeake's past activities constituted a temporary nuisance.

Notably, in between these two Chesapeake verdicts, on April 24, 2014, a Dallas, Texas jury awarded a Texas family nearly $3 million for a nuisance claim involving property damage and personal injuries arising out of natural gas activities in Lisa Parr v. Aruba Petroleum. The $2,925,000 Parr verdict against Aruba Petroleum included $275,000 for loss of market value on the Parrs' home. This case did not involve the Wedgewood or Valkyrie wells, but wells located in a different field.

Two more cases where landowners have asserted nuisance claims against Chesapeake for its operations at the Wedgewood and Valkyrie wells are currently pending in Tarrant County, Texas. Both were filed by the same attorney for Ms. Anglim and the Crowders. In one, Diana Mann v. Chesapeake Operating, Inc., 2011-008232-3, the landowner lives 420 feet from the wells. In the other, Maurillo and Ceclia Gutierrez v. Chesapeake Operating, Inc., 2011-008274-3, the landowners live 330 feet from the wells. These cases are both set for trial on August 25, 2014.

It is unlikely that the amount of the Crowder's verdict will greatly incentivize plaintiffs to pursue claims (unlike the result in the Parr case), but it does demonstrate the viability of nuisance claims arising out of natural gas operations in residential areas. Comparing Anglim, Crowder, and Parr also demonstrates how differently juries interpret nuisance cases. The two pending nuisance cases against Chesapeake may be instructive in assessing potential trends for nuisance claims based on natural gas operations, including whether the distance to the well site seems to influence juries and whether juries will continue to reject the idea of a permanent nuisance.

Elizabeth R. Taber
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R. Bruce Hurley
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Brannon C. Robertson
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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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