BY EMILY ATKIN
A Texas family claiming they were sickened because of pollution from hydraulic fracturing operations near their home should be awarded $2.95 million for their troubles, a jury ruled on Tuesday.
The Parr family had sued Aruba Petroleum Inc. in 2011, alleging the oil and gas producer exposed them to hazardous gases, chemicals and industrial waste that seeped into the air from 22 wells drilled near the family’s 40-acre plot of land, which sits atop the Barnett Shale.
The jury returned a 5-1 verdict saying Aruba “intentionally created a private nuisance,” awarding $275,000 for losses on property value, $2 million for past physical pain and suffering, $250,000 for future physical pain and suffering, and $400,000 for mental anguish.
“They’re vindicated,” David Matthews, one of the Parr’s attorneys, wrote on his firm’s blog Tuesday. “I’m really proud of the family that went through what they went through … It’s not easy to go through a lawsuit and have your personal life uncovered and exposed to the extent this family went through.”
A statement provided to ThinkProgress from Aruba on Wednesday lamented the jury’s verdict, but did not indicate whether it would appeal.
“The facts of the case and the law as applied to those facts do not support the verdict,” the statement read. “Aruba is an experienced oil and gas operator that is in compliance within the air quality limits set by the Texas Railroad Commission and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.”
The Parrs — Bob, Lisa, and their daughter Emma — say they went through a health-problem wringer before realizing it could have been natural gas operations that were responsible. According to the complaint, they began experiencing symptoms like chronic nose bleeding, irregular heartbeat, muscle spasms, and open sores. Daily Kos blogger Sharon Wilson writes about visiting the Parrs and their neighbors, the Ruggieros, and explains their symptoms in detail:
Bob and Lisa Parr were neighbors to Tim and Christine Ruggiero in Wise County. I was there, in the Ruggiero kitchen, the day Lisa discovered that her timeline of doctor’s visits matched exactly Christine’s timeline of releases from the Aruba gas wells on her property.
I was often on the Ruggiero property and sometimes on the Parrs’. I saw the suffering of both families and experienced my own health impacts when I visited. …
Lisa’s suffered from breathing difficulties, nausea, rashes that left her scarred with pock-marks. She had biopsies of the oozing welts on her scalp and the 4 ping-pong-ball-sized lumps on her neck. Testing showed drilling chemicals in Lisa’s blood and lungs that match chemicals detected by the state in air testing outside her home.
The Parrs’ lawsuit confirms this, noting that multiple doctors visits confirmed the existence of hydrocarbon-related chemicals in Lisa’s bloodstream. In addition, the lawsuit says the Parrs experienced death of house pets and livestock, and saw “physical dwarfing” of a newborn calf. The family had to evacuate multiple times, forced to live out of Bob’s office.
The $3 million verdict was about 4.5 percent of what the Parrs had sought in their latest complaint, a cool $66 million in damages. This is because the jury rejected the Parrs’ claim that Aruba acted with malice, therefore punting their bid for exemplary damages, according to a Law360 report.
Still, the decision is being hailed as the first jury verdict in a fracking case to date. And if it’s not the first, then certainly the biggest, according to Earthjustice managing attorney Deborah Goldberg, who works closely on fracking cases. This is because fracking companies have largely able to dodge injury lawsuits over their operations.
“A lot of the earlier tort cases [against fracking companies] were dismissed because the industry was so successful at withholding information that people couldn’t draw connections between the problems and what industry were doing,” Goldberg told ThinkProgress. “Now studies are starting to be done, and people are beginning to realize that they can document what the impacts are going to be.”
In previous lawsuits where people allege health problems from fracking, Golberg said, companies have been successful in arguing that plaintiffs are unable to prove that the oil or gas extraction process was the actual cause of injury. Indeed, Aruba tried the same thing in this case, according to the company’s statement.
“We contended the plaintiffs were neither harmed by the presence of our drilling operations nor was the value of their property diminished because of our natural gas development,” Aruba’s Wednesday statement read. “We presented thorough and expert testimony from recognized toxicologists and medical professionals, as well as local real estate professionals, to help the jury make an informed decision. Unfortunately they returned a verdict that we believe is counter to the evidence presented.”
A gradual increase in information about fracking’s health impacts was probably the reason the Parrs were able to prove to an unbiased jury that they were, in fact, harmed, Goldberg said.
“[The companies] really had an effective campaign of secrecy that protected them,” she said. “But now, as we get more and more information about what the impacts of this industry really are, I think we’re going to see more and more of these kinds of verdicts.”