Face Challenges Confidently

099 Mitchell Energy Corp. v. Bartlett

Thursday, September 3rd, 2015

Richard F. Brown

The following is not a legal opinion. You should consult your attorney if the case may be of significance to you.
Mitchell Energy Corp. v. Bartlett, 958 S.W.2d 430 (Tex. App. — Fort Worth 1997, no writ), considers whether Mitchell’s failure to properly maintain its gas wells caused hydrogen sulfide to migrate from the gas wells into the Trinity Acquifer, the source of Bartlett’s water supply, and whether the hydrogen sulfide caused Bartlett’s injuries. Hydrogen sulfide is associated with a “rotten egg” odor. Mitchell had drilled approximately 3,700 gas wells in Wise County and in surrounding counties since the 1950’s, and at the time of trial operated approximately 2,000 active wells in the area. The Bartletts and many other land owners sued Mitchell and alleged that various deficiencies in Mitchell’s maintenance made Mitchell liable on theories of nuisance, negligence, trespass, violation of various regulatory rules and fraud.
The jury found for the land owners on all of their claims and awarded compensatory damages for mental anguish; physical pain; discomfort, annoyance and inconvenience; out-of-pocket expenses; property damage; and diminished value of real estate. The jury also found that Mitchell’s conduct constituted gross negligence and was committed with malice. The jury awarded the land owners punitive damages of $200,000,000.
Held: reversed and rendered. Almost all of the land owners’ claims were found to be barred by the two-year statute of limitations. Claims for personal injury and property damage are governed by the two-year statute and must be brought within two years from the date of “accrual” of the cause of action. Generally, a cause of action accrues when a wrongful act causes an injury, regardless of when the plaintiff learns of the injury. However, Texas courts have applied the discovery rule of accrual to causes of action for damage to property. When applied, this rule operates to toll the running of the limitations period until the plaintiff discovers, or through the exercise of reasonable care and diligence should have discovered, the fact of injury. Regarding claims for permanent injury to property, the action accrues and the statute begins to run when the injury is first discovered or should have been discovered.
Therefore, in this case, the proper inquiry was:
Did [Land Owners] file their lawsuits within two years of the date they discovered or in the exercise of reasonable diligence should have discovered, the fact of their injury?
The evidence conclusively established that the land owners knew that their water tasted bad and smelled bad for many years before they sued, and therefore, their claims were barred.
Because there were a couple of land owners who did timely file their suit, the court went on to consider whether there was any evidence of causation. The court then effectively threw out the land owners’ expert testimony because of defects in the underlying facts and methodology.
The case is significant because it limits tort recoveries for permanent injury to land to those claims brought within two years from the date that the injury to the land is first discovered or should have been discovered.