Texas judge upholds $3 million fracking verdict

Tue Jul 15, 2014 5:44pm EDT

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(Reuters) - A Texas judge upheld a $3 million jury verdict by ruling in favor of a family who claimed that oil and gas drilling near their land made them sick, in a landmark case hailed as a victory by anti-fracking activists.

Last week's ruling, confirmed by lawyers on Tuesday, is the latest step in a three-year case that began when Bob and Lisa Parr filed suit against a handful of oil companies claiming that fumes from drilling around their 40-acre (16-hectare) ranch exposed them and their livestock to hazardous gases and industrial chemicals.

Some of the initial claims related to hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, operations were settled out of court or dismissed, leaving the couple, who have a young daughter, to face Aruba Petroleum in a jury trial in Dallas County Court.

In April, the jury awarded the Parrs $275,000 for the drop in their property value, $2.4 million for past physical suffering and mental anguish and $250,000 for future harm.

Judge Mark Greenberg on July 9 entered a final judgment for the Parrs and denied Aruba's bid to overturn the multimillion dollar jury award.

Aruba, an energy driller focused on the Barnett Shale formation in Texas, will request a new trial and if that fails will appeal the ruling, said the company's lawyer Michael Mazzone.

The amount awarded was far lower than the maximum damages of $66 million sought by the Parrs, but the ruling is seen as a success story for residents who oppose the impacts of a drilling boom that has swept the country over the past decade.

"If the court of appeals upholds this judgment it will have huge implications for people living around fracking operations," said the Parrs' attorney David Matthews.

The Parrs' case is one of the first complaints of its kind to make it in front of a jury. The family was featured in the anti-fracking documentary "Gasland Part II" by filmmaker Josh Fox.

Mazzone said the family's claims were not about fracking per se - a controversial technique that involves injecting water, sand and chemicals underground to release oil or gas - but instead about air emissions on the surface from diesel-powered trucks and gas wells.

Oil and gas drilling has a long history in Wise County where the Parrs live in eastern Texas, but there has been an expansion of activity in the area as more drillers flood in to extract gas from the Barnett Shale. Aruba is one of dozens of companies operating hundreds of wells in the region.

The case is Parr v. Aruba Petroleum, Inc. in the Dallas County Court at Law No. 5, cc-11-01650-E.

(Reporting by Mica Rosenberg; Editing by Edward McAllister and Lisa Shumaker)

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