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Plaintiffs Suing Oil, Gas Companies Gained Access To Critical Evidence

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NORMAN, Oklahoma -

Plaintiffs suing local oil and gas companies for damages caused by the 2011 Prague earthquake gained access on Tuesday to what could prove to be critical -- and possibly incriminating -- evidence.

District Judge Lori Walkley ruled on several discovery-related motions during a hearing at the Cleveland County courthouse. The motions come from a pair of lawsuits filed by Lincoln County residents who were impacted by the 5.7-magnitude earthquake in November 2011 in Prague.

Sandra and Gary Ladra filed a civil lawsuit in August 2014 against New Dominion LLC and Spess Oil Company, seeking compensation and punitive damages for alleged injuries Sandra Ladra suffered from the Prague earthquake.

The lawsuit was originally dismissed over jurisdictional issues, but, upon appeal, the Oklahoma Supreme Court overturned the decision, clearing the way for the case to go to a jury trial. Spess Oil settled with the Ladras for an unspecified amount earlier this summer.

Ladra v. New Dominion was the first legal action in the state intended to hold oil and gas companies accountable for damage and injury caused by induced seismicity. Evidence that underground disposal of oil and gas waste water can, under certain circumstances, cause earthquakes has existed since the 1960s. In 2015, Oklahoma officials acknowledged that waste water disposal from oil and gas production was the likely cause of the state's unprecedented increase in earthquakes.

In February 2015, Jennifer Cooper, whose home sustained about $100,000 in damage from the Prague quake, filed a class-action lawsuit against New Dominion and Spess Oil. The suit was filed on behalf of residents with property damaged by earthquakes, not just in Lincoln County, but also in Payne, Logan, Oklahoma, Cleveland, Pottawatomie, Seminole, Okfuskee and Creek counties.

Following about 90 minutes of arguments, Walkley made two key rulings:

  • Pending approval by his current federal employer, former State Seismologist Austin Holland, who now works for the USGS in New Mexico, can be deposed for discovery and his testimony possibly used at trial. Reports have suggested that Holland, while working for the Oklahoma Geological Survey from 2010-2015, may have been pressured to suppress evidence of a connection between waste water disposal and earthquakes.
  • New Dominion LLC must turn over communications between the company and specified government officials and agencies that discuss waste water disposal and earthquakes.

"That's a big deal for us," said Scott Poynter, attorney for both plaintiffs, "because we think their knowledge of induced seismicity goes back before 2011, and we believe we will find, through those communications, that they knew."

New Dominion will also have to turn over additional documentation detailing disposal well data for the company's wells in the Prague area.

Attorneys for the defendants were successful in limiting some of the discovery items. Specifically, Walkley agreed to quash a subpoena filed by the plaintiffs for the deposition of OSU professor Todd Halihan. Attorneys for OSU successfully argued that, although Halihan has spoken at many earthquake forums, his true expertise is not in induced seismicity and he has no specific knowledge of events that might have caused the Prague earthquake.

Halihan is also a member of the Governor's Coordinating Council on Seismic Activity, formed in September 2014. Judge Walkley indicated she might approve a more narrowly defined request to depose Halihan on any possible Council discussions of the Prague earthquake.

Ladra v. New Dominion is currently scheduled to go to trial November 27.

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