Nixed verdict revives Pa. contamination battle
Years of conflict may still lie ahead for an already epic legal clash over water contamination in the Marcellus Shale town of Dimock, Pa. A federal court Friday scrapped a verdict against Cabot Oil & Gas Corp. and ordered a new trial, ruling that evidence in the case simply did not support the jury’s $4.2 million finding last year in favor of two Dimock families that complained of fouled drinking water.
Chief Magistrate Judge Martin Carlson of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania wrote that weaknesses in the plaintiffs’ arguments and "regrettable missteps" by their attorney undermined the verdict (E&E News PM, March 31).
"It’s an open-and-shut case as far as oil and gas contamination goes.
Industry supporters were elated, seeing Friday’s decision as vindication after last year’s $4.2 million hit to Cabot’s reputation.
The standards vary slightly by jurisdiction, but federal judges generally can set aside jury verdicts and order a new trial in any of these circumstances: Newly discovered evidence arises that could change the likely outcome.
"Nevertheless, upon consideration of the trial record, and following reflection on the substantial and varied weaknesses in the plaintiffs’ case together with the myriad examples of inappropriate conduct that repeatedly occurred in the jury’s presence and may have colored the outcome of this case," he said, "the Court is constrained to find that a new trial is not only justified, but required."
In November 2009, 44 plaintiffs filed a lawsuit against Cabot arguing that the company’s new natural gas wells were to blame for tainted water wells in the area.
The case narrowed further as the early 2016 trial approached, with Carlson tossing several claims against Cabot and barring the plaintiffs from presenting certain evidence that had not previously been produced during the many years of litigation.
If the settlement discussions fail, the parties will move on to a new trial at the district court.
The judge noted that some testimony from plaintiffs’ witnesses could persuade a reasonable jury that even though the families complained of water problems before Cabot started drilling, the company could have contributed to issues in the area.