A small community in Oklahoma settled a contamination issue created by Continental Oil Company (Continental) over 50 years ago. Continental, an oil company that is now part of ConocoPhillips after a merger with Phillips Petroleum Company in 2002, drilled 16 oil and gas wells in northwest Oklahoma City between 1935 and 1966. Eight of these wells were drilled in an area that now constitutes the Clifford Farms subdivision. The wells produced water containing salt with a concentration of 217,000 parts per million (ppm) that leaked and escaped into the Clifford Farms community.
Plaintiffs argued ConocoPhillips was responsible for the contamination of saltwater into their community and never gave warning of possible contamination from the Continental’s oil field. In 2017, Clifford Farms' residents passed a Joint Resolution to create a Water Improvement District for Clifford Farms in response to the contamination. Mr. and Mrs. Blocker and the many other plaintiffs were forced to connect their homes to municipal water because their groundwater had been contaminated. James and Jami Blocker, a married couple represented multiple plaintiffs in a legal action against ConocoPhillips Company for negligence per se and public nuisance. The Plaintiffs sought the expenses to connect their homes to municipal water.
Proving Negligence Per Se
Plaintiffs argued they were entitled to summary judgment on their claim of negligence per se on account of a statute that stated “No inflammable product from any oil or gas well shall be permitted to run into any tank, pool, or stream used for watering stock…Salt water shall not be allowed to flow over the surface of the land.” For a Plaintiff to establish negligence per se in Oklahoma, he/she must demonstrate “the claimed injury (a) was caused by the law’s violation,” that the claimed injury “(b) was of the type intended to be prevented by the statute,” and “(c) the injured party was a member of the class meant to be protected by the statute.” The Plaintiffs argued that water escaped from ConocoPhillips pits/ponds, were transported via pipelines, and impacted the neighborhood of the Plaintiffs. The Court agreed the evidence presented in support of the facts was enough to establish the Plaintiff’s negligence per se claim.
Proving A Public Nuisance
The Plaintiffs also argued they were entitled to summary judgment on their claim of public nuisance per se. To be successful in a public nuisance claim against an oil and gas operator, Plaintiffs are required to show that “during operations, waste was stored in unlined pits/ponds and permitted to escape from pits, ponds, or pipelines in the soils, where such wastes will eventually percolate through the soil and into the groundwater.” The Court stated that when there is evidence with conflicting interpretations, or “reasonable people might differ as to its significance, summary judgment is improper.” The Court held there was not enough evidence to determine whether water escaped from pits, ponds, and/or pipelines, and did not grant the Plaintiff’s summary judgment.
Plaintiffs contended the statute of limitations defense should not be available to ConocoPhillips. Under Title 50, Section 7 of the Oklahoma Annotated Statute, the statute of limitations does not run against public nuisance claims. The Court held the Plaintiffs’ public nuisance claim proceeds and damages were determined to have come about from a public nuisance and the statute of limitations did not bar their recovery. Rather than arguing against the statute of limitations, ConocoPhillips attacked the merits of the public nuisance claim. It argued that the damages Plaintiffs’ incurred were result of third-party acts or omissions. It stated the Plaintiffs were contributorily negligent for failing to abate the alleged continuing nuisance as successive owners. Every successive owner of the property who did not abate the property were liable in the same way as the original one that created the nuisance. Plaintiffs argued these defenses did not apply to their public nuisance claims. They stated, “any alleged contribution of others to [water pollution] is not a defense because “a party who contributed to [this] single, individual injury…may be held liable for the entire result.” They argued they were under no obligation to ‘disprove’ the contribution of pollution by non-parties. The Court ruled in favor of the Plaintiffs and stated that if ConocoPhillips was shown to contribute to the nuisance, it would be held liable for the totality of the injury that resulted from the nuisance.
The District Court granted summary judgment in favor of Plaintiffs with respect to the Defendant’s statute of limitations, coming to the nuisance, third party contribution, and contributory negligence defenses to the Plaintiff’s public nuisance claims. If you are having any contamination or nuisance issues that are impacting your way of life, contact Whitcomb, Selinsky Law, PC so we can help address these important issues. Call (303) 534-1958 or complete an online contact form.