An Oklahoma woman can pursue a jury trial after she was injured when her fireplace crumbled in an earthquake she claims was caused by saltwater waste pumped into the ground, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.
The move further exposes the energy industry in Oklahoma to trials over such earthquakes, which scientists increasingly say are linked to large-scale wastewater injection wells from drilling operations. A state agency has even said it is "very likely" that the frequent quakes of magnitude 3 or higher are triggered by such operations. Other lawsuits against the energy industry are pending in Oklahoma and elsewhere.
The justices' procedural move could usher in more litigation and weaken the industry, energy lawyers have argued. Proponents of regulation, however, have said the threat of energy companies being liable for earthquake damages could result in safer practices.
One of the few certainties is further legal wrangling, as the defense attorney says he'll seek a trial for his client.
Tuesday's decision overturns a lower court judge's ruling in the case of Sandra Ladra, whose knee was injured Nov. 5, 2011, during a 5.0 magnitude earthquake — one of Oklahoma's largest on record.
Ladra was watching television in her living room when the earthquake caused a two-story fireplace to tumble, causing rocks to fall on her legs and gash her knee. She said wastewater injections from two energy companies contributed to the earthquake and claims personal injury damages in excess of $75,000.
Lincoln County District Judge Cynthia Ferrell Ashwood dismissed the lawsuit in October, arguing the court doesn't have jurisdiction and that the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, which approved of the disposal operations, should handle the matter.
The Oklahoma justices noted earthquake activity has increased near Ladra's home at Prague but did not take a stand on the merits of her case, instead saying it should return to a lower court because Ladra is seeking damages and isn't trying to modify wastewater injection rules.
Defendants include Tulsa-based New Dominion LLC; Cleveland, Oklahoma-based Spess Oil Company and 25 other unnamed parties. New Dominion general counsel Fred Buxton declined to comment, and attorneys representing the other named companies didn't return calls for comment.
Energy company attorneys had previously warned the lawsuit could cause businesses to abandon wastewater disposal wells across the state.
"These wells will become economic and legal-liability pariahs," attorney Robert Gum told Ashwood during an October hearing, according to the Tulsa World.
Ladra's attorney, Arkansas-based Scott Poynter, said he hopes to present the case before a jury.
"This upheld a longstanding view in Oklahoma that when you have a private citizen suing another private citizen or entity for damages then that belongs in court," said Poynter, who represents dozens of clients affected by earthquakes.
Poynter said he's hopeful ruling will encourage energy companies into better disposal practices.
"I'm not out to kill the industry, neither are my clients," Poynter said. "Just pay for the damages you caused and let's figure out how to do this safely."
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