On March 25, 2015, the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania entered summary judgment in favor of an exploration and production company on claims of strict liability, nuisance, and negligence, by a Tioga County landowner related to drilling activity near his property. Chief Magistrate Judge Carlson found that the uncontroverted evidence offered by the E&P company demonstrated that “defendants are entitled to summary judgment in their favor on the merits.” The case is Kamuck v. Shell Energy Holdings GP, LLC, No. 4:11-CV-1425, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 37538 (M.D. Pa. Mar. 25, 2015).
A crucial factor in the Court’s decision was that the plaintiff failed to produce any evidence to support many of the factual allegations made in his complaint.
For example, [plaintiff] has never identified the time, date, location, or extent [of] any toxic chemical release that he alleges took place on any part of the [plaintiff’s] Property or adjoining properties. Neither has [plaintiff] identified any toxic substances that were allegedly released on his property. [Plaintiff] has also failed to produce any evidence identifying specific environmental contamination, fire, explosion or any other hydro-carbon production mishap that affected his well-being or property. Nor has he presented any competent proof supporting his nuisance claims relating to vehicle traffic and the alleged spraying of toxic chemicals on the roadway adjoining his land.
Turning to the merits of the individual causes of action, the Court first addressed plaintiff’s strict liability claim. The Court accepted the E&P company’s uncontroverted “evidence and argument that support [its] position that natural gas drilling activities, including hydraulic fracturing, do not constitute abnormally dangerous activities under Pennsylvania law giving rise to strict liability.” The Court noted that its decision “is in line with precedent in this field within Pennsylvania,” “with legal authority in other jurisdictions,” and “follows the prior precedent of this Court.”
With respect to plaintiff’s private nuisance claim, the Court found that the lack of evidence compelled entry of summary judgment. Plaintiff “presented nothing to support this private nuisance claim beyond his subjective upset at the volume of road traffic he has experienced periodically outside his home on a public thoroughfare.” Under Pennsylvania law, “mere roadside noise and dust do not constitute private nuisance.”
Finally, the Court addressed plaintiff’s failure to support his negligence claim. “[D]ue to [plaintiff’s] inaction, and a complete failure of competent proof, we are unable to identify any duty breached by the defendants; any causal relationship between that duty and injuries to the plaintiff; and any ascertainable damages resulting from that injury” and, consequently, “this claim also now fails as a matter of law.”
In addition to finding the E&P company was entitled to summary judgment on the merits, the Court also found that plaintiff’s failure to prosecute his case and to obey court orders with respect to discovery obligations offered an independently adequate ground upon which to dismiss the case. Despite plaintiff’s pro se status, “courts have directly spoken to the type of willful avoidance of litigation responsibilities which has marked [plaintiff’s] approach to this lawsuit over the past two years, condemning the practice of avoiding depositions and generally ‘playing possum’ when instructed to fulfill their litigation responsibilities.” “The plaintiff cannot refuse to address the merits of his claims, and then assert the untested merits of these claims as grounds for denying a motion to sanction him.”