Related: Attorney sues energy companies seeking class-action status for earthquake victims in nine counties
OKLAHOMA CITY — The state Supreme Court cleared the way Tuesday for lawsuits against two Tulsa-area companies that plaintiffs say are responsible for earthquakes that have shaken central Oklahoma since late 2011.
In a 7-0 decision with two justices not participating, the court ruled that Sandra Ladra of Prague may seek damages in district court for injuries she received during an earthquake on the night of Nov. 5, 2011.
By extension, the Supreme Court ruling also allows a property damage suit filed by Jennifer L. Cooper of Prague to go forward. The case potentially is worth tens of millions of dollars if the requested class-action status is granted. Both cases are in Lincoln County District Court and are brought by the same attorneys.
Ladra is suing New Dominion LLC of Tulsa and Spess Oil Co. of Cleveland, Oklahoma, claiming that their high-pressure disposal wells are responsible for the earthquake during which she was injured. Cooper is suing the same two companies in the potential class-action suit.
The Oklahoma Emergency Management Agency said six houses were destroyed and 172 others were damaged when three quakes of 5.0 magnitude or greater struck the Prague area from Nov. 5 to 8, 2011.
Cooper’s suit seeks class-action status for residents with property damaged by earthquakes in Lincoln, Payne, Logan, Oklahoma, Cleveland, Pottawatomie, Seminole, Okfuskee and Creek counties. The suit states that the class would consist of people in those counties who have owned homes or business properties since Nov. 5, 2011.
The suit states that Cooper’s home sustained more than $100,000 in damage from the 2011 Prague earthquakes. She bought the home in 2010 for $117,000 and had spent about $15,000 improving it, the suit states.
Attorneys for New Dominion and Spess argued that the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, not the court system, was the proper venue for damage claims because the commission has sole authority over oil and gas operations.
The state Supreme Court disagreed.
“Allowing district courts to have jurisdiction in these types of private matters does not exercise inappropriate ‘oversight and control’ over the (Corporation Commission),” says the opinion, written by Justice James Winchester. “Rather, it conforms to the long-held rule that district courts have exclusive jurisdiction over private tort actions when regulated oil and gas operations are at issue.”
“My clients are very happy,” said Scott Poynter, the plaintiffs’ lead attorney in both lawsuits. “The court decision is what we’ve been saying all along.”
Poynter, of Little Rock, Arkansas, previously filed suit on behalf of eight central Arkansas property owners who said their homes were damaged by injection well-induced earthquakes. That suit was settled out of court.
Attorneys for New Dominion did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.
Oklahoma has gone from virtually no discernible earthquakes a few years ago to more than any other state. Some scientific studies have linked high-pressure injection wells such as those operated by New Dominion and Spess to the increased seismic activity.
Recent news reports have suggested that some leaders in the oil and gas industry tried to suppress findings by the Oklahoma Geological Survey supporting this view.
The University of Oklahoma, which administers the Oklahoma Geological Survey, has denied any such interference, but emails obtained by the Tulsa World and others indicate that some industry leaders made known their displeasure with the agency.
Also, at least one email indicates that state regulators became upset in 2013 when they learned that an OU researcher was about to publish an academic journal article bolstering the disposal-well theory.
Disposal wells, as the name implies, are used to dispose of water and other liquids that are byproducts of oil and gas production. Oklahoma has thousands of such wells, but only a few are thought to have the capacity to create noticeable seismic activity.
Randy Krehbiel 918-581-8365