Plano company loses $3 million verdict in Wise County fracking case
Dallas Morning News | James Osborne
April 23, 2014
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A Wise County couple has been awarded $3 million by a Dallas jury in their suit against a Plano gas drilling company.
Bob and Lisa Parr sued Aruba Petroleum of Plano in 2011, claiming spills and emissions from the company’s hydraulic fracturing operations had contaminated their 40-acre ranch in Decatur. They argued the pollution made them sick, as well as their pets and livestock. At times they were forced to evacuate the property, they said.
“They’re vindicated,” said David Matthews, a Houston attorney representing the family. “It takes guts to say, ‘I'm going to stand here and protect my family from an invasion of our right to enjoy our property.’”
The Wise County drilling site was within the Barnett Shale, which became one of the country’s most prolific natural gas plays after the advent of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling techniques.
Attorneys for Aruba argued during the trial in Dallas County Court that there are more than 100 natural gas wells within a 2-mile radius of the Parrs’ property.
“It was arbitrary,” said Ben Barron, one of the attorneys representing Aruba in the case. “How do you determine which well caused what, if any, damages?
Barron said Aruba had not yet made a decision on whether to appeal the ruling.
Also named in the 2011 suit was Encana Oil & Gas of Calgary. The Parrs previously settled with that company for an undisclosed sum.
Matthews claims on his website the jury decision Tuesday represented the first “fracking verdict” in Texas. The Parrs appeared in the documentary “Gasland Part II,” which made the case hydraulic fracturing operations were contaminating the country’s air and water.
In the lawsuit, the couple presents a long list of maladies they and their daughter suffered since moving onto the ranch in 2008. Included are asthma, nausea, nose bleeds, ear ringing and depression. They note one of their calves was born “dwarfed.”
“These are all classic symptoms tied to hydrocarbon exposure,” said Brad Gilde, a Houston attorney who represented the Parrs in the trial. “The boom hit the Barnett in 2008 and it just so happened that’s when the Parrs moved onto the ranch. Almost immediately their health effects started to manifest.”
Aruba argued in court its operations around the Parrs’ ranch did not produce emissions beyond those allowed under Texas air pollution standards.
But the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality fined Aruba both in 2011 and 2012 for air quality violations in Wise County, totaling close to $40,000.
The verdict drew cheers from environmentalists, who have been engaged in a long-running battle with the gas drilling industry over what they call the dangers of fracking.
“Six regular people who knew nothing about fracking were presented with the facts and awarded the victims $3 million. It’s going to be hard to spin that,” Sharon Wilson of Earthworks, an advocacy group with offices in Texas, wrote in a blog post Tuesday.
Oil and gas companies have been defending lawsuits from the landowners surrounding their drilling sites since the early days of the industry, said Larry Nettles, an attorney with Vinson & Elkins in Houston.
He said Friday’s verdict would likely give some companies pause, but most worked hard to try and keep their neighbors appeased.
“I don’t think this is going to be damaging to the industry. But it is a warning to operators they need to exercise caution when running operations near homesteads,” Nettles said.