BY LAURA LEGERE
A federal judge has denied a motion by Cabot Oil and Gas Corp. to dismiss a case brought by Dimock Twp. residents who claim their health and property has been harmed by the company’s natural gas drilling activities.
Cabot sought to have a judge throw out the case brought by 63 residents of the Susquehanna County township, arguing the families failed to establish a legal basis for the suit against the Texas-based driller.
But in an order issued Nov. 15, U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III found there is reason to allow the case to go forward on all but part of one count. He also refused Cabot’s request to strike several allegations from the families’ complaint.
In the suit, filed in November 2009, the families claim Cabot’s gas drilling activities allowed methane and other toxins to migrate onto their land and into their drinking water, causing them illness, property damage, fear of future sickness and emotional distress.
Of particular interest in the judge’s order was his decision not to throw out the families’ claim that Cabot is legally responsible for the alleged harm based on the principle of strict liability. The principle holds that some activities are so dangerous that those conducting them are responsible for any damage they cause regardless of the precautions they take to prevent it.
Pennsylvania courts have not directly addressed whether gas drilling is an “abnormally dangerous” activity that fits the strict liability standard. In its motion to dismiss, Cabot argued that state courts have determined that similar activities, such as operating petroleum pipelines or underground storage tanks at gas stations, are not abnormally dangerous.
In his order, Judge Jones said it is too early in the case to extend the standard for pipelines and storage tanks to gas drilling.
“We believe it improvident to automatically extend this reasoning to drilling activities without more thorough consideration,” he wrote, adding that Cabot can raise the issue at a later point when more facts have been presented in the case.
Ross H. Pifer, a professor at Penn State University’s Dickinson School of Law who follows Marcellus Shale-related laws and litigation, said the judge’s choice to put off a decision on the strict liability question means that gas drilling in general, and not just Cabot’s particular activities, is left open to scrutiny in the case.
“It definitely would be significant if a court were to rule that drilling is abnormally dangerous, but we’re not there at this point,” he said.
Judge Jones also denied Cabot’s motion to dismiss the families’ claims under the Hazardous Sites Cleanup Act and for a medical monitoring trust fund. He dismissed the families’ claim of gross negligence as a cause of action, but allowed them to retain the allegations they made under that claim to support their broader claim for punitive damages.