Fracking: In apparent first, family gets courtroom victory in health case

Although others have sued oil and gas companies over alleged injuries from fracking, most have settled in agreements that include gag orders. But in the case involving the Parr family, a jury awarded $2.95 million.

Brennan Linsley/AP/File
Perforating tools, used to create fractures in the rock, are being lowered into one of six wells near Mead, Colo., March 25. A jury recently awarded $3 million to the Parr family, who claimed airborne toxins from the 22 fracking wells run by Aruba Petroleum affected their health and poisoned their livestock and drinking water.

In what is being hailed as a landmark victory for opponents of hydraulic fracturing, a Texas family has won a $2.95 million verdict against a Plano oil and gas firm.

Robert and Lisa Parr and their daughter claimed that airborne toxins from the 22 wells run by Aruba Petroleum near their 40-acre Decatur ranch affected their health and poisoned their livestock and drinking water. The process that the firm used, also known as fracking, involves water and chemicals being injected deep underground to release natural gas trapped in rock formations.

A six-person Dallas jury found in the Parrs’ favor, 5 to 1, and then delivered the multimillion-dollar verdict on Tuesday.

“They’re vindicated,” blogged David Matthews, the Houston attorney representing the family.

Environmentalists and others concerned about the negative impact of fracking say this is an important breakthrough for litigation. Although others have sued oil and gas companies over alleged injuries from fracking, most have settled in agreements that include gag orders. This case is reportedly the first to result in a courtroom victory.

“A lot of the earlier tort cases [against fracking companies] were dismissed because the industry was so successful at withholding information that people couldn’t draw connections between the problems and what industry were doing,” Earthjustice managing attorney Deborah Goldberg told the website ThinkProgress. “Now studies are starting to be done, and people are beginning to realize that they can document what the impacts are going to be.”

This sets an important precedent for others who want to take on large oil and gas companies, advocates say.

“Six regular people who knew nothing about fracking were presented with the facts and awarded the victims $3 million .... It’s going to be hard to spin that,” noted Sharon Wilson from the advocacy group Earthworks, who blogged about the verdict after the 2-1/2-week trial concluded.

Nonetheless, Aruba Petroleum contends that the jury did not do justice to the evidence presented. In a statement e-mailed to the Monitor, the firm says, “The facts of the case and the law as applied to those facts do not support the verdict.”

The company goes on to note that it is one of dozens doing business in the area and that it is in line with all state regulations.

“Aruba is an experienced oil and gas operator that is in compliance within the air quality limits set by the Texas Railroad Commission and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality,” the statement reads. However, according to local media reports, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality fined Aruba in 2011 and 2012 for air quality violations in the county in question.

Aruba maintains that the family was not harmed by its actions nor was the family’s property devalued, noting that its legal team presented medical and real estate testimony to support that position.

Jury-watchers suggest the decision may have revolved more around perceptual issues than scientific ones.

“We have found in our jury research throughout the nation that most lay people are increasingly wary of the possible risks associated with fracking,” says Philip Anthony, CEO of DecisionQuest, a national trial consulting firm. For many jurors, there is no economic boom associated with fracking, “and as a result, many jurors see the downsides without any visible upside associated with the fracking activity,” he says in e-mailed comments.

It’s possible that the problem may lie with the company itself, says Chicago lawyer William Anaya, who has represented oil and gas firms in court. During the trial, he says, Aruba conceded that it was unable to prove that the wells that may have produced the damage did not belong to the company.

“They should be able to explain why their processes will result in a rational result that will not harm people,” he says, adding, “If they could not do that, then there is nothing to appeal.”

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