Recently, a Texas jury awarded $2.9 million in personal injury damages to a Wise County family that claimed gas extraction wells caused pollution, decreased value of their land and multiple health problems.
Hydraulic fracturing, also known as hydrofracking or fracking, is the petroleum engineering process for extracting underground natural gas. The Wise County drilling site was in the Barnett Shale, which created a boom in natural gas extraction in the Dallas Fort Worth area, after the explosion of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling techniques.
Oil and gas companies have been using the Hydraulic Fracturing to inject a highly toxic mixture of poisonous chemicals, sand, and water into the ground at high pressure. This process causes fracturing of the gas containing rock and releases the gas.
Dallas County Jury Verdict
The Dallas County court jury, sided with the plaintiffs, Bob and Lisa Parr, against Aruba Petroleum Inc, in an environmental tort lawsuit.
The Parrs alleged that the two dozen wells near their property caused a private nuisance, exposed them to toxic chemicals that damaged their health and lowered property value. These are all classic symptoms tied to hydrocarbon exposure, including asthma, nausea, nose bleeds, ear ringing and depression.
The Parrs underwent blood tests, the tests found BTEX — benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene — all colorless but toxic chemicals typically found in petroleum products.
This landmark $2.95-million civil verdict by a six-person Dallas jury is thought to be the first of its kind in the nation. Other landowners have sued over drilling and reached settlements, but according to legal experts, this is the first jury verdict.
Hydraulic Fracturing Damages the Environment, Water Table
According to many different experts, the hydrofracking process is extremely damaging and in some instances causes irreversible injury to groundwater reservoirs and the environment. In many states, underground water reservoirs may be the only source of drinking water.
According to a Wall Street Journal analysis last year, more than 15 million people live within one mile of a fracked well.
The Parrs filed their lawsuit in 2011, and named Halliburton, Encana Oil & Gas and Burlington Resources Oil & Gas Co. as co-defendants. The Parrs settled with Encana and Burlington for $400,000. Halliburton was dismissed from the lawsuit and Aruba was left as a sole defendant. 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 family’s negligence lawsuit addressed the loss of property value due to the company’s drilling activities and the pollution and waste caused by the gas wells.
The jury awarded the $2.925 million verdict after finding that the company had been a private nuisance to the Parr family. The jury did not find that the company acted with malice and refused to grant punitive damages.
Punitive damages are designed to punish the company for its wrongdoing and can be as high as 10 times the compensatory damages. If the Parrs were successful in their gross negligence claims, a big if, then the punitive damages could have been as high as $29 million dollars. Juries in Texas personal injury cases are extremely reluctant to award punitive damages. Here, the jury award was for compensatory damages to cover pain, suffering, and loss of land value of the 40 acre ranch.