Fracking Toxic Tort Case Dismissed Per Lone Pine Order

Readers will recall our earlier postings on "fracking"; natural gas from shale rock promises to provide cleaner, abundant energy for the U.S.  New drilling methods allow companies to tap into huge quantities of gas from shale rock. New estimates show that we have enough of this natural gas to last 100 years at current consumption rates.

The second biggest natural gas field in the world -- the Marcellus -- runs through your humble blogger's home state of Pennsylvania. The energy, jobs, taxes, and independence that tapping into this domestic resource will bring has spurred much interest and anticipation. The method to extract the gas from the rock is called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which like any technology, carries potential risks.

However, the potential drilling into the Marcellus Shale has caught the attention of the plaintiffs' bar, including personal injury and environmental class action lawyers. Plaintiffs lawyers are openly speculating about everything from gas leaks and fires, to environmental groundwater impacts, to the problems of large tanker trucks on small rural roadways.

We posted before about one such case already filed regarding another deposit, out West. See Strudley v. Antero Resources Corp., No. 2011CV2218 (Colo. Dist. Ct., Denver Cty., 3/24/11). Plaintiffs sued the gas exploration company and drilling equipment contractor, alleging that the hyrdrofracking contaminated their well water.

Earlier this month, the Colorado court dismissed the claim, relying on a  Lone Pine order, 2012 WL 1932470. The case arose from drilling and completing three natural gas wells in Silt, Colorado known as the Diemoz A well, the Fenno Ranch A well, and the Three Siblings A well. Construction of the Wells allegedly began on August 9, 2010. By January 10, 2011, plaintiffs had moved out of their home and away from Silt.

The central issue was whether defendants caused plaintiffs’ alleged injuries, which
plaintiffs vaguely described as “health injuries” from exposure to air and water contaminated by
defendants with “hazardous gases, chemicals and industrial wastes." Plaintiffs also alleged that
defendants had caused loss of use and enjoyment of their property, diminution in value of
property, loss of quality of life, and other damages. 

Cognizant of the significant discovery and cost burdens presented by a case of this nature, the court endeavored to invoke a more efficient procedure than we see in the standard case management order. The court required plaintiffs, before opening full two-way discovery, to make a prima facie showing of exposure and causation, a form of a Lone Pine order. See Lore v. Lone Pine Corp., No. L-33606-85 1986 WL 635707 (N.J. Sup. Ct. Nov. 18, 1986). The court further
determined that the prima facie showing requirement should  not prejudice plaintiffs because
ultimately they would need to come forward with this data and expert opinion on exposure and causation in order to establish their claims anyway.

The court also seemed influenced by the fact that the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (“COGCC”) had conducted an investigation of the plaintiffs’ well water and had concluded that the water supply was not affected by oil and gas operations in the vicinity. Defendants also provided evidence to support their contention that the air emission-control
equipment at the Wells and prevailing wind patterns made it unlikely that plaintiffs or their
property were exposed to harmful levels of chemicals from defendants’ activities.

Specifically, the CMO required plaintiffs to identify the identity of each hazardous substance from defendants’ activities to which he or she was exposed and which caused him or
her injury;  evidence whether any and each of these substances can cause the type(s) of disease or illness that plaintiffs claimed (general causation);  the dose or other quantitative measurement of the concentration, timing and duration of his/her exposure to each substance; a medically recognized diagnosis of the specific disease or illness from which each plaintiff allegedly suffers or is at risk for such that medical monitoring is purportedly necessary; and a conclusion that such illness was in fact caused by such exposure (specific causation).

Plaintiffs were given 105 days to comply with the CMO. After that time, all plaintiff's expert could opine was that “sufficient environmental and health information exists to merit further substantive discovery.” Significantly, he offered no opinion as to whether exposure was a contributing factor to plaintiffs’ alleged injuries or illness. And the requested march towards further discovery
without some adequate proof of causation of injury is precisely what the CMO was meant to
curtail. The expert  suggested, at best, a very weak circumstantial causal connection between the Wells and plaintiffs’ injuries. In fact, he merely temporally associated plaintiff’s symptoms with the Wells being brought into production.

While the proffered evidence showed existence of certain low level gases and compounds in both the air and water of plaintiffs’ Silt home, there was neither sufficient data nor expert analysis stating with any level of probability that a causal connection does in fact exist between the alleged injuries and exposure to defendants drilling activities.  This is particularly telling, since Mr. Strudley complained of “nasal sinus congestion, nose bleeds at inconvenient times” and “an aversion to odors,” while he owns a painting business, and was frequently exposed to paint vapors -- offering a ready alternative explanation for his alleged respiratory symptoms.

The expert did not opine on whether any and each of the substances present in the air and water samples (taken after plaintiffs had moved out) can cause the type(s) of disease or illness that plaintiffs claimed (general causation). He did not discuss the dose or other quantitative measurement of the concentration, timing and duration of the alleged exposure to each substance. Finally, and perhaps most significantly,the expert did not even attempt to draw a conclusion that plaintiffs’ alleged injuries or illnesses were in fact caused by such exposure (specific causation).

The case reflects an effective, but also appropriate, use of the Lone Pine order. It may be a useful model for other fracking toxic tort suits, and is important as an illustration of a method to avoid long, expensive, and unnecessary discovery in such cases. 

 

Update BUT SEE Strudley v. Antero, Colo. Ct. App., No. 12CA1251, 7/3/13.

Plaintiffs Bar Looking to Attack Exploration of Shale Gas

Many of our readers may have seen the recent cover story in Time noting how natural gas from shale rock promises to provide cleaner, abundant energy for the U.S.   While the fuels of the future were often said to be solar, wind, or nuclear (before Japan perhaps?), new drilling methods allow companies to tap into huge quantities of gas from shale rock. New estimates show that we have enough of this natural gas to last 100 years at current consumption rates.

The second biggest natural gas field in the world -- the Marcellus -- runs through your humble blogger's home state of Pennsylvania. The energy, jobs, taxes, and independence that tapping into this domestic resource will bring has spurred much interest and anticipation. The method to extract the gas from the rock is called hydraulic fracturing, which like any technology, carries potential risks.

As detailed in the Legal Intelligencer, however, the potential drilling into the Marcellus Shale has caught the attention of the plaintiffs' bar, including personal injury and environmental class action lawyers.  Plaintiffs lawyers are openly speculating about everything from gas leaks and fires,  to environmental groundwater impacts,  to the problems of large tanker trucks on small rural roadways.

Some plaintiff firms are reportedly trolling for clients, among local residents and workers on Marcellus Shale drill sites as well.

Out west, there has already been litigation filed. See Strudley v. Antero Resources Corp., No. 2011CV2218 (Colo. Dist. Ct., Denver Cty., 3/24/11).  Plaintiffs sued the gas exploration company and drilling equipment contractor, alleging that the hyrdrofracking contaminated their well water. Of more interest to our readers, perhaps, is the count for medical monitoring. Plaintiffs lawyers say they have other case to file, and are quoted as planning other medical monitoring class actions.

Medical monitoring is recognized under Pennsylvania law, and a handful of other states, and a plaintiff must prove:

1. exposure greater than normal background levels;

2. to a proven hazardous substance;

3. caused by the defendant's negligence;

4. as a proximate result of the exposure, plaintiff has a significantly increased risk of contracting a serious latent disease;

5. a monitoring procedure exists that makes the early detection of the disease possible;

6. the prescribed monitoring regime is different from that normally recommended in the absence of the exposure; and

7. the prescribed monitoring regime is reasonably necessary according to contemporary scientific principles.

Redland Soccer Club v. Dep't of the Army, 548 Pa. 178, 696 A.2d 137, 145-46 (Pa.1997).

A number of these elements implicate individual issues that should defeat class certification under the predominance or cohesiveness analyses of Rule 23.  Nevertheless, it should come as no surprise to industry that this vital economic activity comes with litigation risks as well.