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Expert Testimony in Texas Toxic Tort Cases

In Cerny v. Marathon Oil Corporation, a couple sued an oil corporation and others for private nuisance and negligence claims. They said that toxic emissions from the companies’ oil and gas operations near their home had caused injuries to their health and property.

The case arose when the couple moved into a fixer-upper in 2002. They leased mineral rights in their land to the predecessor of the oil corporation defendant. Subsequently, the defendant was authorized to use the surface of their land for oil and gas operations and to drill horizontal wells. The defendant didn’t put wellheads or infrastructure on the couple’s property, and they received consistent royalty payments.

In 2013, they sued the oil corporation and another party, alleging that they were negligent in their oilfield operations and these operations worsened existing health problems and caused new ones. Due to the oilfield operations, their property wound up with sink holes, and their home’s foundation was damaged. Their property was also surrounded by other wells and production facilities owned by the defendants, and these radically changed their rural lifestyle. They pled negligence, negligence per se, gross negligence, and private nuisance.

They claimed they weren’t seeking personal injury damages that would require them to present expert testimony. They also disclaimed claims seeking recovery for diagnosed diseases that also occur genetically. They didn’t identify any pre-existing diseases or physical symptoms alleged to be caused or exacerbated by the defendants’ conduct. Instead, they characterized the damages as compensation for reasonable and necessary medical expenses, loss of earning capacity, and recovery for symptoms of discomfort and loss of peace of mind. They also asked for remediation damages to repair their home, loss of market value of the property, and punitive damages.

The defendants filed motions for summary judgment, claiming there was no evidence and no issues of material fact on any of the couple’s claims. They primarily focused on the element of causation. In response, the couple provided evidence that consisted of affidavits from the family, someone who’d taken videos of gas planes and air canister samples, an air quality expert, a forensic meteorologist, and a toxicologist. The toxicologist had the opinion that the couple faced an increased risk of cancer.

The defendants moved to strike most of this evidence, and the motions to strike were granted. The court then granted the summary judgment motions. The couple appealed, arguing that the trial court had erred in granting the motion and that it had abused its discretion in striking all of the couple’s evidence.

The appellate court noted first that the defendants had argued there was no evidence of any of the elements of the causes of action pled by the couple, but that there especially was no evidence their oilfield operations caused the couple’s damages.

The defendants argued that expert testimony was necessary to create a factual issue regarding causation. The appellate court explained that when deciding whether expert testimony is needed, courts consider whether the actions or conduct of the defendant involve the use of specialized equipment or techniques that the average person wouldn’t know. It explained that plaintiffs claiming health problems caused by exposure to a toxic substance must meet stringent requirements of proof related to the standard of care, risk, and causation. An expert must provide testimony that exposure more likely than not caused an injury.

In this case, the plaintiffs had suffered from several chronic health conditions before the oilfield operations were begun, and any causation testimony in the affidavits presented was speculative. For this and other reasons, the judgment was affirmed.

If you’re hurt due to exposure to toxic substances or injured in an oilfield accident, the experienced San Antonio personal injury attorneys at Carabin Shaw may be able to help you. Call our office for more information at 1-800-862-1260.

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