Last week a Texas jury awarded $2.9 million to a family in a private nuisance lawsuit involving fracking operations. Fracking, common shorthand for "hydraulic fracturing," is a method used by natural gas and oil drillers. They force large quantities of water mixed with chemicals and sand into a shale or rock formation. That process fractures the shale around the well. The fractures in the shale in turn permit natural gas or oil deposits in the shale to move freely. The Texas case was the first time that a United States had awarded personal injury damages because of a fracking operation.
The family asserted that numerous health problems they were having were caused by a nearby fracking operation. News reports indicate that the family's personal injuries from the nearby fracking operation began with migraine headaches, nausea, and dizziness. The symptoms became progressively worse. The family began to suffer vision and hearing problems, had trembling episodes, vomited white foam, nosebleeds, nausea, rashes, and blood pressure issues. The family was forced out of their home for an extended period and lost pets and livestock.
The family sued and asserted that the nearby fracking operation was poorly managed and lacked appropriate emission controls. That created a private nuisance by creating harmful air pollution, including exposure to dangerous emissions of volatile organic compounds, toxic air pollutants, and diesel exhaust. The family also contended that the fracking operation's status as a private nuisance diminished the property value of the family's land. The fracking company countered that it complied with Texas regulatory requirements for air emissions and that there was no proof that its fracking operation caused any harm to the family. The jury disagreed and awarded the family $2.9 million for personal injuries and property damage.
As expected, the jury verdict invited immediate commentary. Fracking opponents lauded it as a landmark decision and an important step towards better regulation of the fracking industry. They argue that fracking is dangerous to people who live close to the wells. The dangers include contaminated water and dangerously polluted air. Supporters of the industry maintain that there is no proof that fracking causes any of the health problems it's been blamed for.
Legal commentators are equally divided. Lawyers who represent landowners and people who live near fracking operations view the Texas case as precedent-setting. But industry attorneys believe that the case is a one-off decision because each private nuisance case involves unique facts, such that a jury's decision in one case has no impact on future cases.By Harley Erbe