The American oil and gas industry took a big hit last Tuesday when a Texas family was awarded $2.95 million for their troubles that they claim resulted from nearby fracking operations.
This is the first known occurrence of a jury deliberation coming out in favor of individuals claiming personal harm from hydraulic fracturing.
The jury returned a 5-1 verdict.
Now we’re left to wonder what this will mean for the future of the Texas oil and gas industry and the Barnett Shale where the problems occurred. And now that the industry officially has its first loss in court, what will this mean for the U.S. shale boom?
The jury said that Aruba Petroleum Inc. “intentionally created a private nuisance,” awarding $275,000 for losses on property value, $2 million for past physical pain and suffering, $250,000 for future physical pain and suffering, and $400,000 for mental anguish.
The Parr family of Wise County, Texas, alleged in 2011 that Aruba had exposed them to hazardous gases, chemicals and industrial waste that caused health problems. That exposure came from 22 wells drilled near the family’s 40-acre plot of land located on central Texas’ Barnett Shale.
The family now feels vindicated for all of their pain and suffering after – Bob, Lisa, and daughter Emma – all say that they faced a barrage of health problems that could only have been caused by the work Aruba was performing in their nearby fracking operations.
Symptoms included nose bleeds, irregular heartbeat, muscle spasms, and open sores.
While Aruba Petroleum may have lost the battle, it contends in a statement released last Wednesday that the verdict was unjustified and loaded with facts that were unfounded.
It is unclear whether Aruba will appeal the court’s decision at this time, but it did make a statement to ThinkProgress:
“The facts of the case and the law as applied to those facts do not support the verdict,” the statement read.
“Aruba is an experienced oil and gas operator that is in compliance within the air quality limits set by the Texas Railroad Commission and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.” Adding, “We contended the plaintiffs were neither harmed by the presence of our drilling operations nor was the value of their property diminished because of our natural gas development,” Aruba’s Wednesday statement read.
“We presented thorough and expert testimony from recognized toxicologists and medical professionals, as well as local real estate professionals, to help the jury make an informed decision. Unfortunately they returned a verdict that we believe is counter to the evidence presented.”
Why Worry Now?
The amount awarded to the Parr family was a very small (4.5 percent) amount of what they were seeking – $66 million in damages. They missed out on the majority of the sought out settlement only because the jury ruled that Aruba did not act out of intent to harm.
Up until now, fracking companies have been able to dodge such court rulings based on insufficient evidence. But today there is much more knowledge and awareness than there was even a year ago, and an increasing number studies are being conducted to document the impact of fracking operations.
Despite the facts that Aruba presented to the jury, there is no doubt that there is a rising fear of concerned citizens, especially those influenced by anti-fracking groups. If producers aren’t safe from lawsuit in Texas – a proud oil and gas producing state – then they aren’t safe anywhere.
The fact is: Aruba is held to a strict standard of operation, and it testified in court that it complies with each and every guideline set forth by Texas law.
The Parrs, meanwhile, claimed an EXTREMELY broad set of ailments that are difficult to pin down. In addition to the physical complaints I listed above, the family’s initial petiton included nebulous complaints like “unreasonable fear…annoyance…loss of peace of mind…deprivation of enjoyment of property.”
Vague complaints like these can be turned into fodder for frivolous lawsuits, and with a $3 million precedent set by this case, the doors for more litigation have opened.