Court Dismisses Claims by Adjacent Landowner for Alleged Methane Contamination
In Magers v. Chesapeake Appalachia, 2013 WL 4099925 (Aug. 13, 2013) (N.D. W.Va.), Judge Stamp granted defendant CNX Company's motion to dismiss, holding that West Virginia statutes provide no implied cause of action for adjacent landowners whose well may have been contaminated by well activity.
The Magers brought suit to recover for alleged methane contamination of their water well and subsequent diminution in the value of their home from defendant Chesapeake’s drilling operation on land adjacent to the Magers’ property. The claims were based on alleged violation of sections 22-6-30 and 22-7-3 of the West Virginia Code, as well as the terms of Chesapeake’s mining permit. Defendants CNX Company and Columbia Gas Transmission were added as defendants; the Magers claimed that CNX’s shallow gas wells and Columbia’s gas storage field also caused the methane contamination.
Chesapeake's motion to dismiss was denied, but the court granted defendant Columbia’s motion seeking a more definite statement. Plaintiffs submitted a more definite statement, adding some detail to their original claim as well as an alleged violation of code section 22-6B-3. CNX then filed a motion to dismiss.
The district court granted CNX’s motion to dismiss, holding that West Virginia Code sections 22-6, -6B and -7 are intended solely to protect the surface owners of lands where the wells are drilled. Adjacent landowners are provided with no protection from drilling under these sections. Only the owner of a surface estate could make a claim under the stated sections of the West Virginia Code. Since the Magers did not allege that drilling was occurring on their land, they failed to state a claim based on sections 22-6B and 22-7.
The court also held that section 22-6-30, which covers reclamation requirements, also failed to mention a private cause of action for adjoining landowners in connection with reclamation requirements. Therefore, any claim based on violation of that section provided no cause of action.
The district court further held that the defendants owed no duty to the Magers by virtue of their mining permits. By the terms of the relevant code provision, prosecution of a failure to comply with permit violations is specifically left to the Secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection.
Regarding a possible implied cause of action, the district court held that per the test set forth in Hurley v. Allied Chemical Corporation, 262 S.E.2d 757, 758 (W.Va. 1980), there was no implied cause of action based on the above-mentioned statutory provisions. The Hurley test is a four part test for determining the applicability of implied causes of action:
- The plaintiff must be a member of the class for whose benefit the statute was enacted.
- Consideration must be given to legislative intent, express or implied, to determine whether a private cause of action was intended.
- An analysis must be made of whether a private cause of action is consistent with the underlying purpose of the legislative scheme.
- Such private cause of action must not intrude into an area delegated exclusively to the federal government.
In applying the test, the court found no indication that the sections cited by the Magers are meant to protect adjacent surface owners. Sections 22-6B-1 and 22-7 are directed at protecting the owners of surface estates upon which drilling activity has occurred. Sections 22-6-6 and 22-30 are not directed at protecting the rights of adjacent landowners. The purpose of these sections is to promote the environment and the economy generally. To imply a cause of action, the beneficiaries of the statute must be more specific than the general public. Further, the Secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection has the authority and duty to supervise drilling operators and enforce Chapter 22, Article 6. Under the Hurley test, there was no implied cause of action for any violation of the statutes named by the Magers.
Common law claims made by the Magers were similarly unavailing. With regard to their negligence claim, the Magers failed to state a duty of reasonable care owed by defendants to adjacent landowners and also failed to specifically allege that the defendants acted negligently. The doctrine of res ipsa loquitur did not factor into the Magers's claims, as they alleged that multiple defendants polluted the ground. The lack of a clear duty to plaintiffs was also fatal in connection with a res ipsa claim. In addition, there was no reasonably stated claim for prima facie negligence absent a clear legal duty of defendants in favor of the Magers.
Since this case includes a thorough discussion of the law relating to private causes of action based on alleged violations of environmental statutes under the Hurley test, it may be helpful to practitioners facing claims based on environmental statutes, especially in West Virginia.1
1Plaintiffs’ subsequent motion to alter this judgment was denied by the court. 2013 WL 6385942 (Dec. 6, 2013).
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