23 April 2014

Jury issues Verdict in Texas Trial

In one of the first hydraulic fracturing lawsuits to go to verdict, a Dallas jury awarded a Texas family $2.925 million against Aruba Petroleum, Inc. (Parr, et al. v. Aruba Petroleum Inc., CC-11-01650-E, in the County Court at Law No. 5 of Dallas County). As we noted in our previus posting, the Parr family, which had actually sought $9 million, alleged that Aruba’s fracturing of the Barnett Shale Deposit exposed them to hazardous gases, chemicals and industrial waste – causing various illnesses. With other parties having settled or been dismissed and the Parr’s other claims dismissed, at trial the jury was left to decide the Parr’s trespass and nuisance claims.

The jury, in a 5 to 1 vote, held that Aruba intentionally created a private nuisance. Interestingly, it neither found that Aruba’s conduct was abnormal or out-of-place with surrounding activities, nor that any exemplary damages were justified. The total damages award was reportedly divided as follows: (a) loss of market value to the subject property ($275,000); (b) past physical pain and suffering ($2,000,000); (c) future physical pain and suffering ($250,000); and (d) past mental anguish ($400,000). What will be perhaps most interesting for those watching this early case from a key fracturing jurisdiction is whether the verdict actually holds up after likely post-trial motions and appeal. Will the Parrs defeat challenges that insufficient evidence existed proving their claimed injuries did not pre-exist Aruba’s drilling? Are the future damages too speculative as a matter of law? Can the physical pain and suffering award be legally sustained without the support of adequate expert testimony? Will the liability finding stand given the jury’s holding that Aruba’s conduct was neither abnormal nor out-of-place — especially as Aruba’s wells’ emissions were reportedly within applicable air quality limits?

By the time of our next report, we hope to know the answers to some of these questions, and perhaps begin to see whether this particular verdict, and any post-trial alterations, affect future cases.