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Pennsylvania Federal Court Vacates Jury Award, 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 production operations. 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 nuisance 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, but the court earlier granted defendant’s motions for summary judgment on most of those claims. When the case went to trial in 2016, only two claims—private nuisance and negligence—remained.

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 cited “a constellation of serious problems [that] thoroughly undermined” the jury’s verdict. The court noted that the evidence presented by the plaintiffs did not support the verdict. Specifically, the court cited uncontroverted evidence that groundwater beneath the plaintiffs’ property 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 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 alleged injuries. 

© 2017 Beveridge & Diamond PC

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About this Author

Eric Klein, environmental attorney, Beveridge & Diamond, P.C.
Principal

Eric L. Klein is an environmental civil litigator and regulatory counselor in the Washington, D.C. office of Beveridge & Diamond, P.C.  He has handled cases in state and federal courts throughout the United States, litigating a variety of complex civil and commercial matters before juries, trial and appellate courts, arbitrators and administrative tribunals.  Mr. Klein frequently litigates both statutory and common law claims, and specializes in challenging and defending technical experts in the litigation of complex environmental torts.

202-789-6016
Graham C. Zorn, Environmental Law Attorney, Beveridge Diamond Law Firm
Associate

Graham C. Zorn is an Associate in the Washington, D.C. office of Beveridge & Diamond, P.C., with a general litigation, regulatory, and environmental practice.  Graham has represented individual businesses, trade associations, and municipalities in compliance, enforcement, and counseling matters involving the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, CERCLA and other state and federal statutes.  He has worked extensively on a series of complex products liability and toxic tort cases related to alleged groundwater contamination involving a gasoline additive.  Graham has also counseled domestic and international clients on a variety of product compliance, market access, and enforcement matters.  Specifically, Graham is well versed in reporting requirements related to the use of conflict minerals in various electronics, medical devices, and consumer products. 

202-789-6024