Oklahoma’s highest court ruled last week that an individual can sue oil companies for personal injuries sustained during an earthquake that was allegedly caused by fracking wastewater injection, a common process in which oil companies take the leftover water used to drill wells and inject it deep into the ground. Ladra v. New Dominion, LLC, No. 113396, 2015 OK 53, 2015 WL 3982748 (Sup. Ct. OK June 30, 2015). This ruling opens the door to other potential lawsuits against the state’s energy companies.
Earthquake in Oklahoma and a Victim’s Lawsuit
On November 5, 2011, Sandra Ladra was at home in Prague, Oklahoma watching television in her living room with her family when a 5.6 magnitude earthquake struck nearby. The quake shook her house, causing rock facing on the two-story fireplace and chimney to fall into the living room area. Some of the falling rock struck Ladra and caused “significant injury” to her knees and legs, and she was rushed immediately to an emergency room for treatment.
She sued two Oklahoma oil companies, New Dominion LLC and Spess Oil Company, which operate injection wells near her home. Ladra sought personal injury damages “in excess of $75,000.” She filed her suit in the District Court of Lincoln County and alleged that the defendants’ injection wells were the proximate cause of her injuries. Id., 2015 WL 3982748 at *1.
In 2014, the district court dismissed the case, finding that the Oklahoma Corporation Commission had exclusive jurisdiction over cases concerning oil and gas operations. Id. Last week, the Oklahoma Supreme Court reversed that decision and remanded the case, ruling that “[t]he Commission, although possessing many of the powers of a court of record, is without the authority to entertain a suit for damages. . . . Private tort actions, therefore, are exclusively within the jurisdiction of district courts.” Id. at *2.
The Supreme Court’s ruling did not address whether the oil companies are in fact responsible for the earthquake and plaintiff’s injuries. In fact, the court noted that the appeal was concerned only with the district court’s jurisdiction. Id. at *3 n.3. The case will now return to the district court to decide whether Ladra’s petition sufficiently stated a claim.
However, now Ladra and other Oklahomans have the opportunity to make their case before a judge and jury, instead of the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, which is run by three elected commissioners who are reputedly partial to the oil and gas industry.
Significant Increase in Earthquakes in Oklahoma
Oklahoma has experienced a dramatic increase in the number of earthquakes during the last five years. According to the Oklahoma Geological Survey (OGS), the state saw nearly 600 quakes of magnitude 3.0 or greater in 2014, compared to just one or two per year prior to 2009. From 2009 to 2014, Oklahoma experienced a 108-fold increase in total earthquakes: from 50 earthquakes in 2009 to 5,417 earthquakes in 2014.
The Prague earthquake was the strongest ever felt in Oklahoma and was followed in the next few days by two more tremors of 5.0 magnitude or greater. The earthquakes were responsible for destroying six homes and damaging more than 170 others in the town of approximately 2,300 people and the surrounding area, where New Dominion is the largest employer.
Scientific Support for Causal Link Between Earthquakes and Fracking Wastewater Injection
The issue of whether oil companies could be held responsible for earthquakes has been closely watched in Oklahoma, where seismic activity has been steadily on the rise since the start of the fracking boom there in 2009. In that year, area oil companies began using hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” to shatter deep rock layer to extract oil and gas. These modern extraction techniques result in large quantities of wastewater produced along with the oil and gas.
Drilling companies inject the wastewater into ultra-deep disposal wells. Oil production in Oklahoma has doubled over the last seven years, in part because drillers can dispose of vast amounts of saltwater found in oil and gas formations relatively cheaply by injecting it back into the ground. That practice is separate from hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” which is not believed to be causing Oklahoma’s tremors. From 2009 to 2013, fracking wastewater injection increased by 50 percent in the state.
Scientific studies increasingly support a link between earthquakes and wastewater injection. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and OGS have conducted research quantifying the changes in earthquake rate in the Oklahoma City region, assessing and evaluating possible links between these earthquakes and wastewater disposal related to oil and gas production activities in the region. In a joint statement, the USGS and OGS identified wastewater injection as a contributing factor for the 2011 earthquake swarm and damaging magnitude 5.6 event.
In February 2015, the USGS found that “[l]arge areas of the U.S. that used to experience few or no earthquakes have, in recent years, experienced a remarkable increase in earthquake activity that has caused considerable public concern as well as damage to structures. This rise in seismic activity, especially in the central U.S., is not the result of natural processes.” The USGS also notes that “Deep injection of wastewater is the primary cause of the dramatic rise in detected earthquakes and the corresponding increase in seismic hazard in the central U.S.”
In April 2015, an OGS report found it is “very likely” that most of the dramatic increase in earthquakes in the state has been triggered by oil and gas companies injecting wastewater into deep underground disposal wells.
Future Lawsuits by Earthquake Victims
Since 2011, more than 20 lawsuits have been filed against energy companies. The lawsuits allege that underground injection activities caused earthquakes in Arkansas and Texas.
Other potential suits filed by Oklahoma residents seeking compensation from energy companies for damages resulting from earthquakes are sure to come. Of course, industry advocates have downplayed the significance of the Oklahoma Supreme Court’s ruling and cast doubt on whether Ladra and her attorneys could prove specific wells were responsible for the earthquake that caused her injuries.
Weitz & Luxenberg is investigating claims related to earthquakes possibly resulting from fracking wastewater injection. If you are a victim of these earthquakes, you may be entitled to recover damages.
Contact us to discuss your situation.