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Cabot Challenges ‘Grossly Excessive’ Damages in Dimock Water Wells Case

Cabot Oil & Gas Corp. has asked the courts to set aside a jury’s recent verdict awarding more than $4 million to four plaintiffs for alleged water well contamination in rural Dimock Township, PA.

In a motion filed Thursday in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, lawyers for the Houston-based company argued that the jury’s decision last month to award Scott Ely and Monica Marta-Ely $2.75 million and Ray and Victoria Hubert $1.49 million (see Shale Daily, March 10) was “grossly excessive.”

Citing a lack of evidence linking Cabot’s two Gesford wells in the area to the alleged methane contamination in the plaintiffs’ drinking water wells, the exploration and production company asked the court to reduce the damages awarded to no more than $85,500.

Cabot said it was “uncontradicted” that the alleged methane contamination of the plaintiffs’ water wells occurred prior to the drilling of the Gesford wells. The experts that testified “failed to identify any pathway that connected either of the Gesford wells to the water supplies at issue” and failed to show “that the methane gas allegedly in their water supplies originated from either of the Gesford wells or was from a source somehow ‘freed’ by the drilling of the Gesford wells,” the company said.

Cabot, represented in the case by law firm Norton Rose Fulbright US LLP, also alleged that the attorney for the plaintiffs, New York-based Leslie Lewis, had engaged in “pervasive, persistent, calculated and prejudicial misconduct,” including, among other things, “inviting speculation about facts not in evidence” and discussing matters that had been excluded from the case, “thereby forcing Cabot to object and approach the bench, in effect reversing the burden by imposing it on Cabot, and leaving the jury with the unmistakable impression that Cabot had something to hide.”

At the time last month’s verdict was issued, Cabot said it was “surprised” by the jury’s decision and planned to challenge it.

The case stems from allegations dating back to 2009. Dozens of residents from the small Susquehanna County community filed a federal civil lawsuit in November of that year against Cabot, alleging that the company contaminated their groundwater supplies through drilling activities. Cabot has consistently denied those claims, arguing that any methane present in the water is naturally-occurring and treatable (see Shale Daily, Jan. 26, 2009).

In 2012, 40 residents settled with Cabot outside of court for an undisclosed amount, but two families pressed ahead with the lawsuit (see Shale Daily, Aug. 16, 2012).

The Dimock incident served as an early rallying cry for shale gas opponents, having been featured in the anti-fossil fuel documentary “Gasland” and other films.

Several rounds of testing by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency determined that water from the private wells was safe to drink, while separate testing by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) arrived at the same conclusion (see Shale Daily, March 19, 2012; Jan. 23, 2012).

Still, a 2009 DEP investigation determined that Cabot was responsible for the methane contamination in water wells serving 19 households. Cabot settled with the DEP in December 2010 without accepting blame but nevertheless agreeing to pay the affected residents $4.1 million and provide whole-house gas mitigation systems (see Shale Daily, Dec. 17, 2010).

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