The ongoing saga over whether Cabot Oil & Gas Corp. operations contaminated the water supplies of two families in rural Dimock Township, PA, will continue after the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania last week reversed a federal jury’s March 2016 decision that required the company to pay damages.
In a 58-page opinion issued late Friday, U.S. Magistrate Judge Martin C. Carlson concluded that there wasn’t enough evidence to justify the more than $4 million in punitive and compensatory damages awarded to the families by an eight-member jury last year. Carlson said the jury’s decision to award $2.75 million to Scott Ely and Monica Marta-Ely and $1.49 million to Ray and Victoria Hubert after they determined that Cabot was negligent and created a nuisance “bore no discernible relationship to the evidence.” He found the damages aren’t justifiable, threw them out and ordered a new trial.
“Cabot felt confident that once a thorough review of the overwhelming scientific evidence and a full legal analysis of the conduct of the plaintiff’s’ counsel was conducted, the flaws in the verdict would be understood,” said spokesman George Stark.
Last year’s high-profile trial lasted nearly three weeks, and the jury came to its decision after deliberating for two days. The company asked the court to set aside the verdict based upon a lack of evidence and claimed the behavior of the families’ attorney, Leslie Lewis, during the proceedings was “calculated to deprive Cabot of a fair trial.”
Carlson agreed, saying her arguments during the case could have corrupted the jurors’ thinking and the outcome of the trial. Lewis told local news media that she disagreed with Friday’s opinion and could not understand why the court took so long to reach its decision.
The saga began in 2009, when dozens of residents from the small Susquehanna County community filed a federal civil lawsuit against Cabot, alleging that the company contaminated their groundwater supplies through drilling activities. It all began when a residential water well exploded there. Cabot has denied those claims, arguing that any methane present in the water is naturally-occurring and treatable. Carlson said the evidence shows contamination occurred before Cabot’s operations began and concluded that scant evidence was presented by the plaintiffs showing otherwise.
Several rounds of testing by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency determined that water from the private wells was safe to drink, while separate testing by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) arrived at the same conclusion.
A DEP investigation, however, determined that faulty gas well construction had led to methane migration. The company settled with the state in 2010 without accepting blame, but nevertheless agreed to pay the affected residents $4.1 million and provide gas mitigation systems. The consent decree signed by the company was not allowed to be presented to jurors.
In 2012, 40 residents settled with Cabot outside of court for an undisclosed amount, but the two families pressed ahead with the lawsuit. The Dimock incident served as an early rallying cry for shale gas opponents. It was featured in the anti-fossil fuel documentary Gaslandand has drawn the attention of prominent actors who have supported the plaintiffs.
Friday’s decision sets the stage for more clashes as both parties had agreed in the last trial to limit their cases and ask the jurors whether Cabot had been a nuisance to the families.