The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals has revived a fracking lawsuit filed by property owners alleging that waste from Southwestern Energy Co. (SWE) contaminated their land. The court overturned the district court’s decision that dismissed the lawsuit after rejecting an expert report analyzing the underground spread of fracking waste. The Eighth Circuit said the report and other evidence raised factual issues that should be decided by a jury.
The lawsuit alleges fracking waste migrated to the Plaintiffs’ property from a neighbor’s property. The neighbor had leased his land for a fracking liquid waste disposal well. The expert report addressed the likely distance the fracking waste migrated. SWE challenged the mathematical equations and techniques used by the expert and claimed they yielded unrealizable results.
After the report was excluded, the district court concluded there was insufficient proof of the contamination and granted SWE’s motion for summary judgment. The Circuit Court disagreed, stating that the expert’s analysis was well within his expertise and could assist a jury in describing where the waste spread. The court ultimately determined that it was the jury’s duty, not the court’s, to determine which expert to believe when both opinions are within the range where two experts might reasonably disagree.
Prosecuting a fracking case is highly technical as it necessarily relies on expert evidence and significant discovery. It’s no surprise that energy companies attack the reliability of expert reports and attempt to have them excluded before reaching the jury. Permitting diverging opinions on difficult cases like this is important. It allows Plaintiffs to get a fair shake in our legal system. This ruling is most significant and is a good one.
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