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Federal District Court Orders New Trial in Tort Lawsuit Against Natural Gas Producer

Illustrating the importance of expert testimony in establishing a factual basis for private nuisance claims and damages in tort actions, a Pennsylvania federal judge vacated a $4.24 million jury verdict and granted a new trial in a case about alleged contamination from natural gas drilling. See Ely v. Cabot Oil & Gas Corp., Civil No. 3:09-CV-2284 (M.D. Pa. Mar. 31, 2017)

In 2009, plaintiff landowners sued defendant Cabot Oil & Gas Corp. for allegedly causing them injuries and property damage, including restricting their access to clean water, through its natural gas drilling operations. The plaintiffs originally brought claims for breach of contract, fraudulent inducement, private nuisance, negligence, negligence per se, medical monitoring, and violations of state environmental laws. When the case went to trial in 2016, only two claims—private nuisance and negligence—remained because the court had granted the defendant’s motions for summary judgment on all other claims.

At trial, the court granted the defendant’s motion for a directed verdict on the negligence claim. Thus, the jury only considered the private nuisance claim. Despite the case being so limited in scope, the jury returned a $4.24 million verdict for the plaintiffs. The defendant sought relief from the judgment.

While the court concluded that the defendant did not meet the high standard required for judgment as a matter of law, it vacated the jury verdict and ordered a new trial. In justifying its ruling, the court first stated that the evidence presented by the plaintiffs did not support the verdict. Specifically, the court looked to uncontradicted evidence that the water was contaminated prior to drilling and compared the speculative and disputed testimony from the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses with the stronger and more rigorous testimony from the defendant’s experts. Second, the court explained that the plaintiffs’ conduct at trial was prejudicial and improper because, among other actions, they did not abide by the evidentiary rulings and encouraged the jury to engage in speculation. Third, the court held that the damages award for the single remaining claim was unreasonable based on the limited testimony from the plaintiffs about their injuries.

By Katrina Krebs

© 2020 Beveridge & Diamond PC National Law Review, Volume VII, Number 253


About this Author

Graham C. Zorn Environmental, Toxic Tort, Products Liability Litigation Attorney Beveridge & Diamond Washington, DC

Graham Zorn focuses his practice on environmental, toxic tort, and products liability litigation.

His representative experience includes extensive work on a series of complex products liability and toxic tort cases related to alleged groundwater, and litigation over lead in drinking water. He has represented individual businesses, trade associations, and municipalities in litigation, as well as in compliance, enforcement, and counseling matters involving the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, CERCLA and other state and federal environmental statutes. He also counsels domestic and...

Eric L. Klein Environmental Litigation Attorney Beveridge & Diamond Boston, MA

Eric makes complex subjects simpler.

He is an environmental litigator in the Boston office of Beveridge & Diamond, with a national practice representing major companies and municipalities in a wide variety of matters including environmental and mass torts, class actions, and federal citizen suits under environmental statutes including the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, and the Clean Air Act. He has handled cases in state and federal courts throughout the United States, litigating complex civil and commercial matters before juries, trial and appellate courts, arbitrators and administrative tribunals. He specializes in challenging and defending technical experts in complex environmental litigation.

Eric’s litigation practice encompasses a broad range of environmental matters, including the prosecution and defense of groundwater and site contamination cases, PCB cost allocations, environmental white-collar defense and internal investigations, and data compensation under FIFRA, the federal pesticide statute. In particular, Eric has defended some of the most significant environmental citizen suits filed in recent times, including the successful resolution of a $4 trillion Clean Water Act citizen suit filed against a major U.S. transportation company.

As a second-year law student, Eric argued before U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, who recognized Eric with "Best Oralist" and "Best Brief" awards. Following law school, Eric clerked for the Honorable Robert I. Richter at the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. He also serves as co-chair of B&D’s Pro Bono Committee and maintains an active pro bono practice, specializing in defending tenants in eviction actions. 

Eric’s core professional belief spans his careers in education and law: success lies in making complex subjects simpler.