Two Dimock, Pa., families who declined a Marcellus Shale gas driller's offer in 2012 to settle their claims of water contamination were awarded $4.24 million Thursday by a federal jury.
The verdict in U.S. District Court in Scranton was a blow to Cabot Oil & Gas Corp., which had maintained that its drilling was not responsible for the elevated level of methane in the families' water wells.
The eight-member jury found that Cabot's drilling was negligent and created a nuisance for the families of Scott Ely and Monica Marta-Ely and Ray and Victoria Hubert. It awarded the Elys $2.75 million and the Huberts $1.49 million.
"I was a wreck," Ely said Thursday after the nearly three-week trial. "I was so hoping the jury would be able to see through the smoke and mirrors, and they did."
In 2009, more than 40 Dimock residents sued Cabot, claiming that the Houston gas producer's rush to drill the Marcellus Shale had polluted their wells.
All but the Elys and Huberts settled in 2012 after tests showed wells contained elevated levels of methane, but none of the chemicals associated with gas drilling.
The company, whose Pennsylvania operations are concentrated in Susquehanna County, said Thursday that it would file a motion with U.S. Magistrate Judge Martin C. Carlson to set aside the verdict based on lack of evidence and the conduct of the families' lawyer, which it said deprived Cabot of a fair trial.
"Cabot is surprised at the jury's verdict given the lack of evidence provided by plaintiffs in support of their nuisance claim," the company said in a statement. "The verdict disregards overwhelming scientific and factual evidence that Cabot acted as a prudent operator in conducting its operations."
Dimock was the focus of two documentary films, lengthy investigations by federal and state environmental agencies, and protests by anti-drilling activists after residents complained of water contamination when Cabot ramped up drilling in 2008.
The plaintiffs were unable to establish that chemicals from hydraulic fracturing got into their water, or that the drilling caused illness, but they maintained that the methane contamination disrupted their lives and deprived them of the enjoyment of their property.
Their lawyer, Leslie Lewis of New York City, said Cabot's expert witnesses were biased. She portrayed the families' claims as a David vs. Goliath story.
"It's very important that when a company such as Cabot harms Pennsylvania families, no matter how charitable they are to the community, no matter how powerful they are, that the courts are a sanctuary for people seeking justice," Lewis said in her closing statement Wednesday, according to a transcript.
The families claimed that Cabot's drilling and poor well construction caused stray gas to migrate underground into their wells. Methane itself is not poisonous, but at elevated levels it is explosive.
Cabot suggested there was a long history in Dimock of methane naturally appearing in wells. It also maintained that the two gas wells nearest the Ely and Hubert homes were not drilled until several months after the residents first complained about stray gas.
"That right there is enough to stop this case dead in its tracks," argued Stephen C. Dillard, one of four partners with Norton Rose Fulbright, the law firm that represented Cabot.
There was testimony that Cabot had installed methane-venting equipment and treatment systems on some homes, which may have suggested to the jury that Cabot took some responsibility for the stray gas. The company agreed to install the systems as part of a settlement with Pennsylvania environmental regulators.
The two families declined the treatment systems, saying they did not think they would work. They testified that they had their own water delivered, and that their children shared baths for six years to conserve water.
Cabot's lawyer suggested that Ely had rejected the treatment system for mercenary reasons. "He wanted to sue Cabot for money damages in this case," said Dillard.
On Monday, the judge dismissed a property-damage claim against Cabot because the plaintiffs introduced no evidence that their property values had been affected. Ely testified that he spent $700,000 to build his 7,000-square-foot home - after the water went bad.
But Carlson also ruled Monday that the plaintiffs had elicited enough evidence that Cabot had been a nuisance to send the case to a jury.
"I stood up for my family, my community and my neighbors who bailed out early," Ely said after the verdict. "It's been 61/2 long years."