The $2.9 million award by a Dallas jury to a Wise County couple comes just two weeks after a Fort Worth landowner lost a similar lawsuit in Tarrant County courts. Both involved claims of "private nuisance," a legal term for activities that are inappropriate or offensive enough to substantially prevent a neighboring landowner from enjoying his or her property. (A "public nuisance" is something that affects the larger community.) But there are also differences, besides just being tried in different counties. We've posted some court documents that highlight the differences in the complaints here Download Parr-11th-Amended-Petition and here Download Anglim - Plaintiff's Second Amended Petition. and in the trial judges' charges to the jury here Download Parr court charge and here Download Court's Charge (Anglim).
Here are some thoughts on the cases, although we haven't interviewed anyone on either jury. The Parrs, the Wise County couple, brought their case against Aruba Petroleum (and others initially, most of whom were eventually dropped from the case), documenting a range of violations and medical impacts on the family and livestock at their 40-acre ranch from dozens of natural gas wells around their land. The Fort Worth suit by Teri Anglim complained of pollution, noise and odors from a Chesapeake Energy site with two wells 595 feet from her home in southwest Fort Worth. Aruba had run into trouble with state regulators in the past, paying a $35,500 fine to the Texas Council on Environmental Quality and being sued by the attorney general's office. Anglim's suit doesn't cite any enforcement actions against the Chesapeake site.
Both lawsuits allege private nuisance, as well as trespass as pollutants crossed onto the plaintiffs' property. The Parrs also alleged negligence, including reckless damage to property, assault and specific violations of Texas environmental statutes. Both cases include the complaint that the defendant's activities were "abnormal and out of place in their surroundings."
In each trial, the judge delivered a charge to the jury in which he defines the alleged offenses and instructs jurors in just what it is that they are to consider in their verdict. (Those are the "court's charge" documents linked above.) In the Parr suit, the judge asked the jury to decide if Aruba "intentionally created a private nuisance," if Aruba's conduct was abnormal and out of place in its surroundings, and if so, to assess damages. In the Anglim suit, the judge asked only if Chesapeake's conduct was abnormal and out of place in its surroundings, and if so to assess damages. The instructions to the jury are also slightly different, although both include what attorneys tell us are "Texas pattern jury charges" -- verbiage that has been used to instruct juries in previous cases and which hopefully will hold up under appeal if it comes to that.
The Parr jury answered "yes" to the charge that Aruba intentionally created a private nuisance. It answered "no" that Aruba's conduct was abnormal or out of place in its surroundings. The Amglim jury also answered "no" that Chesapeake's conduct was abnormal or out of place. It could be that both juries decided that the companies' natural gas operations aren't inherently "abnormal and out of place," but that Aruba's specific actions were objectionable. A couple of lawyers we talked to said the different responses in the Parr case could generate a challenge from Aruba.
John McFarland, an Austin lawyer who specializes in oil and gas law, said it's possible that the Parr verdict could encourage more private nuisance suits to be pursued. But he also thinks it will have a challenging path in the appeals process from a state judicial system that has tilted toward the industry historically.
-- Jim Fuquay