An interesting case was in the news recently and oil and gas attorneys have been following it with interest. The case is Lisa Parr, et al. vs. Aruba Petroleum, Inc., et al.; County Court at Law No. 5, Dallas County, Texas; Cause Number: CC-11-01650.
The Parrs have a 40 acre ranch in Decatur, Texas which is about 60 miles northwest of Dallas, Texas. The ranch sits on the Barnett Shale. Robert and Lisa Parr and their 11 year old daughter Emma alleged that they started having health problems in 2008, including migraine headaches, dizziness and nausea. By 2009, Lisa Parr said: "(m)y central nervous system was messed up. I couldn't hear, and my vision was messed up. My entire body would shake inside. I was vomiting white foam in the mornings." She claimed that her husband and daughter had nosebleeds, vision problems, nausea, rashes and blood pressure issues.
The Parr family filed a lawsuit against Aruba Petroleum and a number of other well operators with wells in the area in 2011, requesting $66 million in damages. Aruba Petroleum had 22 natural gas wells within two miles of the Parr’s land, with three wells close to the Parr’s house: the closest well was 791 feet from their house. The lawsuit claimed that Aruba Petroleum poorly managed the wells and did not have proper emissions controls, leading to a “private nuisance” of air pollution and the family's exposure to emissions, toxic air pollution and diesel exhaust. They claimed they got so sick that they could not work, and sometimes had to stay in Robert Parr’s office to escape the toxic environment.
Aruba claimed that: 1) the Parrs had no evidence that proved that diminished air quality at their home was due to the drilling of its wells; 2) Aruba had eliminated any environmental problems immediately and any contaminants were within air quality standards set by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality; 3) all operations of Aruba's wells complied with requirements of the Texas Railroad Commission; 4) the operation of the wells complied with all federal law and standards; and 5) any substances released into the air near the wells could not have made anyone sick.
The original lawsuit was not only against Aruba Petroleum, but also other oil and gas companies operating nearby. Halliburton won summary judgment against the Parrs last year. Other companies, including a subsidiary of ConocoPhillips Co., settled with the family.
In April 2014 the jury in the Dallas County Court of Law No. 5 awarded the Parr family $3 million dollars in a five to one jury verdict. The jury found that Aruba Petroleum took intentional steps to substantially interfere with the Parr family’s use of their home. The jury did not find that Aruba acted with malice however, and so the Court dismissed the Parr’s claims for exemplary damages. The award included $275,000 for loss of value to their property, $2 million for past physical pain and suffering of the three, $250,000 for future pain and suffering, and $400,000 for mental anguish. The judgement was signed by Judge Mark Greenberg on July 19, 2014. Judge Greenberg signed an order denying Aruba's motion for new trial on September 10, 2014 and Aruba has posted a supersedeas bond, which prevents the Plaintiffs from collecting the judgement until all appeals are exhausted.
Aruba said that it plans to appeal the decision to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. An Aruba representative said: “There were hundreds of wells drilled in the area. Trying to tie the diminution of property value and the health effects to Aruba alone makes no sense.”
I am all in favor of oil companies paying for whatever damage they may cause. I have to confess that I am a bit mystified as to how the Parrs could prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that it was only the Aruba wells that caused their problems, when there were dozens of other wells in the area. It will be interesting to see what the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals does with this case.
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