U.S. News

Pennsylvania families, fracking company ordered to settle dispute

HARRISBURG, Pa. (Reuters) - Two Pennsylvania families who claimed their drinking water had been tainted by fracking and the energy company they blamed for it said on Monday they would try to seek a settlement after a judge threw out a $4.2 million jury verdict against the company.

The case in Dimock, Pennsylvania is one of the highest-profile incidents in the United States of residents contending that fracking polluted their well water, an allegation the company Cabot Oil & Gas Co has denied.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Martin Carlson late Friday ordered the Dimock families and Cabot to try to reach a settlement.

The Ely and Hubert families were the last of more than 40 families living in the northeastern Pennsylvania town to continue their legal battle. They charged that their water was contaminated with methane gas after Cabot began fracking in 2008. The other families settled in 2012.

“We were always for mediation,” said Leslie Lewis, a lawyer for the families. “We had to go to trial because we couldn’t get a fair decision.”

Lewis said she was looking into whether her clients could appeal the judge’s order.

Carlson’s opinion said that jurors had allowed sympathy for the families to outweigh hard evidence presented during the trial. Cabot had hoped the judge would throw out the case altogether.

“Although the court agrees with Cabot that the evidence presented in support of the plaintiffs’ claims was spare ... [it] does not agree that Cabot has demonstrated that it is entitled to have a judgment entered in the company’s favor,” Carlson wrote.

Stephen Dillard, lead counsel for Cabot, said the company would abide by the judge’s order and begin mediation.

Dimock gained notoriety following the 2010 documentary “Gasland” by Josh Fox which showed local residents lighting their tap water on fire because of the high amount of methane it contained.

Cabot and the U.S. gas industry have long held that fracking and drilling were safe and not responsible for water contamination.

Carlson said in his ruling that Lewis’ courtroom behavior may have prejudiced the jury, saying the lawyer presented the case she wished she had instead of one that abided by his pre-trial rulings excluding certain evidence and witnesses.

“The court was highly critical of me,” Lewis said in an e-mail on Monday. “At Cabot’s request, the court excluded critical, relevant evidence, inextricably linked to the facts and claims in this civil matter.”

Editing by Scott Malone and Andrew Hay