SCRANTON - A federal jury's decision to award $4.2 million to two families featured in the Emmy Award-winning documentary "Gasland" was fueled by publicity, a New York City attorney says.
On March 10, jurors in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania sided with the families of Scott Ely and Ray Hubert and against Cabot Oil and Gas Company. Approximately 40 other families from Dimock have brought lawsuits alleging fracking has contaminated their water with methane.
Though the jury in the case found Cabot liable for the contamination of the well, it stopped short of determining fracking itself to be subject to strict liability.
Despite this, Gordon Rees attorney William Ruskin told the Pennsylvania Record the ruling was “extremely disappointing” for the defendants. He said the case was fueled by publicity from the documentary, which included scenes of the Elys and others in Dimock hauling clean water into their homes that were “very sympathetic” for juries.
The documentary won the 2011 Emmy for Outstanding Directing for Nonfiction Programming.
Cabot is appealing the decision, arguing that there was not sufficient evidence linking the methane contamination directly to drilling activities.
“The plaintiff really didn’t really have much of an explanation as to why the methane got into his drinking water,” Ruskin said. “Apparently the court felt there were enough fingerprints from Cabot activity to get it over the hump of getting to the jury.”
Ruskin, who has tried a number of environmental cases for mostly corporate clients, said he prefers to have his cases heard before a judge, as the scientific concepts involved in fracking can be difficult for juries to understand.
“It’s hard for juries to wrap their arms around,” Ruskin said. “You can’t see it, it’s happening underground - you’ve got to make it interesting for the jury and keep them awake.”
The ruling, Ruskin said, is less of a “rallying cry” for future litigation and more of the final vestiges of an industry’s early mistakes. He said that Dimock was one of the first to experience boom of hydraulic fracturing wells, and that since that time, the industry has been both voluntarily and involuntarily submitting to a number of safety regulations, such as using double, instead of single, well casings to protect groundwater.
“Dimock is a poster child for new an innovative technology that got out ahead of the safety,” Ruskin said. “There’s no question mistakes were made, but the question is: will mistakes like this be made in the future?”
Particularly weakening the case, Ruskin said, was the fact that there was no illness associated to the lawsuit. As such, “nuisance” cases are typically limited in their ability garner jury awards, he said, further adding that the lawyer for the plaintiffs did a “hell of a job” winning against Cabot.
“At the end of the day, it’s very hard to get a seven-figure jury verdict, like in this case,” Ruskin said.