Did the Mass Litigation Panel (“MLP”) err in granting summary judgment against the Plaintiffs in their private nuisance actions by holding that the Defendant oil and gas operators had express and implied contractual land rights which precluded the finding of an actionable nuisance under the facts of the case?
This case arises out of the large-scale filing of private nuisance claims against oil and gas well developers constructing and operating horizontal oil and gas well pads and related equipment. These particular cases where organized into the Harrison County Cherry Camp trial group under the authority of the MLP. The Defendants sought summary judgment on the claims filed against them. The MLP granted judgment to the Defendants finding that, for each particular piece of property at issue, Antero had a leasehold or property interest related to the extraction of the minerals under the properties. Even though individual surface landowners may not have signed oil and gas leases themselves, or even owned their mineral rights, mineral severance deeds and/or lease agreements executed in the past by prior landowners provided express contractual rights relating to oil and gas production. The MLP found that the express contractual rights, together with the related implied rights under West Virginia law, created a situation where the oil and gas companies held easements. Under West Virginia law, the holder of any easement who is operating within the scope of that easement cannot be found liable for a nuisance. The MLP found that the types of day-to-day disruptions alleged by the landowners were within the scope of the easements held by the operators.
The Petitioners urge that rights allegedly acquired under decades old severance deeds cannot, under the facts here, serve to preclude nuisance causes of action. They argue that the Court overstated the alleged rights of the operators and underprotected the rights of surface owners. The Petitioners believe that West Virginia law concerning the rights of easement holders has only been applied to cases of express easements. The decades old severance deeds cannot and should not be considered easements in that sense. Additionally, the question in cases involving easement rights (i.e., whether an easement holder has created a reasonable burden which is fairly necessary) is not so different from the standard of nuisance liability as to preclude the Petitioners’ claims as a matter of law. The Petitioners further argue that the decades old severance deeds must be interpreted in light of what the parties to those deed would have expected. Parties to old oil and gas severance deeds would not have contemplated the breadth and scope of oil and gas operations now being used in the Marcellus Shale play. Thus, the Petitioners urge reversal and remand.
The respondents fully support the decision of the MLP and indicate that the reasonable use of an easement under West Virginia law is a question of law for the court to decide, not a jury. It is argued that all of the actions taken by the operators have been within the rights that they have obtained through various written agreements applicable to the property. The Respondents assert that they expressly and/or impliedly have the right to conduct each and every operation which they have conducted, and that the related noises, smells, and disturbances are reasonable and necessary as a matter of law.
This will be the first major oil and gas related decision since the shake up on the Supreme Court. Justice Armstead has already recused himself from consideration of the case. The question will be, where will the priorities of the Court lie on this issue? Dozens upon dozens of other well pad-related nuisance cases will rise or fall on the result in this case. The ruling could give well drilling operator’s immense freedom in the construction and operation of their well sites. While the oil and gas operators might have certain rights, should those rights so overpower the rights of surface owners that they cannot, as a matter of law, seek redress for the tremendous impact on their land rights? Through its decision in this case, the Supreme Court will foreshadow how many other oil and gas related matters might play out for the foreseeable future.