Judge overturns $4.24M award in alleged fracking pollution case

Judge overturns $4.24M award in alleged fracking pollution case
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A federal judge Friday overturned a $4.24 million jury award in a landmark case regarding alleged groundwater pollution from hydraulic fracturing.

Judge Martin Carlson wrote that the evidence presented at last year’s jury trial by a pair of families in Dimock, Pa., “was spare, sometimes contradictory, frequently rebutted by other scientific expert testimony, and relied in some measure upon tenuous inferences.”

He said there were multiple “weaknesses” in the case, along with “serious and troubling irregularities in the testimony and presentation of the plaintiffs’ case  — including repeated and regrettable missteps by counsel in the jury’s presence,” necessitating that Carlson vacate the jury award against Cabot Oil and Gas Co.

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Carlson declined Cabot’s request to rule completely in its favor, and instead ordered a new federal trial.

Scott Ely and Monica Marta-Ely and Ray and Victoria Hubert sued Cabot in 2009, claiming that Cabot’s fracking and drilling for natural gas near their homes caused methane to enter their water wells.

Fracking opponents have for years held up the Dimock case as a prime example of the dangers of the gas recovery process. It was central to the 2010 anti-fracking documentary “Gasland.”

Cabot and the gas industry have long held that fracking and drilling are safe and not responsible for widespread water contamination. The company said it did not cause the methane in the water wells.

Carlson recognized that overturning a jury award is rare, particularly when it is unanimous.

“We do not take this step lightly, and we recognize the significance of voiding the judgment of a panel of jurors who sat through nearly three weeks of trial and reached a unanimous verdict,” he wrote.

But the weaknesses in the case and inappropriate conduct of the plaintiffs’ attorney necessitated such a step, Carlson said.

Cabot welcomed the judge’s decision.

“Cabot is pleased with Judge Carlson’s decision to vacate the verdict and the award in its entirety,” said spokesman George Stark. “Cabot felt confident that once a thorough review of the overwhelming scientific evidence and a full legal analysis of the conduct of the plaintiff’s counsel was conducted, the flaws in the verdict would be understood.”

The original 2009 case included more than 40 Dimock residents. All but the Elys and Huberts settled with Cabot out of court.