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$4.24M verdict in Pennsylvania drilling lawsuit tossed

RON TODT

A federal judge has thrown out a $4.24 million jury verdict against one of the largest natural gas producers in Pennsylvania and ordered a new trial in a lawsuit alleging Houston-based Cabot Oil & Gas Corp. contaminated the well water of two families.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Martin Carlson on Friday set aside the verdict reached a year ago by a jury in Scranton, saying the evidence presented by the Dimock homeowners "was spare, sometimes contradictory, frequently rebutted by other scientific expert testimony, and relied in some measure upon tenuous inferences."

Carlson also said the plaintiffs presented no evidence that would justify a multi-million dollar award.

The judge, however, declined to decide the case in favor of the company and, instead, ordered a new trial. He said that before any trial, the parties should have settlement discussions with the aid of another judge.

Dimock was the scene of the most highly publicized case of methane contamination to emerge from the early days of Pennsylvania's natural-gas drilling boom. Dozens of plaintiffs settled with Cabot in 2012, but two families opted to take their case to trial.

The rural community and its fight against fracking, a method used by drilling companies to extract oil and gas from underground rock, also was featured in the Emmy-winning 2010 documentary "Gasland."

Cabot hailed the judge's Friday decision, saying in a statement that it had been confident that "once a thorough review of the overwhelming scientific evidence and a full legal analysis of the conduct of the plaintiffs' counsel was conducted, the flaws in the verdict would be understood."

The families' attorney, Leslie L. Lewis of New York City, called the decision "another dark chapter for the victims of oil and gas contamination." She told The Philadelphia Inquirer that the judge appeared to have ignored the plaintiffs' arguments.

"It is not clear to me why the court required an entire year to essentially rubber-stamp defendants' position that they were somehow robbed of a fair trial," she said.

Dimock residents first reported in 2008 that water from their faucets turned cloudy, foamy and discolored, and it smelled and tasted foul. Homeowners, all of whom had leased their land to Cabot, said the water made them sick with symptoms that included vomiting, dizziness and skin rashes.

A state investigation concluded that Cabot had allowed gas to escape into the region's groundwater supplies, contaminating at least 18 residential wells. Cabot maintained that the methane was naturally occurring and said the problems in the water wells pre-dated Cabot's arrival.

In his decision, the judge also said the plaintiffs' acknowledgements that there had been problems with their water before the company started drilling made it hard to argue that Cabot was the sole cause of any problems. He said their expert witnesses offered at best "inferences that had weak factual support" while failing to contest Cabot's rebuttal evidence.