More Earthquake Lawsuits Ahead in Oklahoma?

As a personal injury attorney, I’ve seen human tragedy, from gruesome traffic fatalities to heart-breaking medical malpractice to simple slip-and-fall liability cases. But when I was starting out ten years ago, I never expected that in Oklahoma I might need to know something about earthquake-related injuries and property damage.

To the surprise of most Oklahoma residents, earthquakes are now an everyday occurrence in our Sooner State.

  • Did you know Oklahoma had 567 earthquakes of 3.0 magnitude or greater in 2014?
  • That’s more than double the 209 such earthquakes in 2013.
  • As a matter of fact, we had more earthquakes last year than in the previous 30 years combined.
  • We had about twice as many earthquakes in Oklahoma in 2014 than in California!

In August, a woman in Prague, a small town about 50 miles straight east of Oklahoma City, filed what may be Oklahoma’s first earthquake-related personal injury lawsuit. She named two oil companies as defendants, claiming that wastewater disposal wells that are part of the companies’ fracking activities triggered an earthquake in which she was seriously injured.

Sandra Ladra, 63, said she was home watching football one November evening in 2011, when Prague was hit by the worst earthquake in Oklahoma history. Large rocks that formed a fireplace and chimney fell on her, lacerating her right knee. She was rushed to the emergency room, has had two surgeries, and says that her doctor is recommending a knee replacement. She was also displaced from her home during several months of repairs.

Ladra’s lawsuit, filed in August 2014 in Chandler, the county seat of Lincoln County, alleges that the earthquake resulted from the fracking activity of New Dominion LLC of Oklahoma City and Spess Oil Co. of Cleveland, Okla. In her petition, she has claimed absolute liability and negligence and is seeking at least $75,000 plus punitive damages.

Ladra is represented by Chandler attorneys Larry Lenora and Gregory Upton. Lenora and Upton are working with Scott Poynter, a Little Rock class action attorney who has handled similar cases in Arkansas.

State Supreme Court Gets Involved

Ladra’s petition gained national attention when the state Supreme Court recently agreed to look at her case. Several national news outlets, including Newsweek and the Washington Times, have announced: “Oklahoma Supreme Court to Decide Prague Earthquake Lawsuit.” But that’s not exactly what’s happening.

In October, just a couple of months after Ladra filed her suit, Lincoln County District Judge Cynthia Ferrell Ashwood dismissed the case, ruling that the Oklahoma Corporation Commission is the proper jurisdiction for her complaint. The Supreme Court has agreed to review that ruling. If the high court rules in Ladra’s favor about jurisdiction, I expect it will send the case back to Lincoln County to be heard.

And that’s no doubt exactly what Ladra and her attorneys want — a chance to make their case to a jury.

To my knowledge, this is the first earthquake-related personal injury or property damage lawsuit in Oklahoma. If you are aware of any other such lawsuits in our state, please speak up in the comments section below

Similar lawsuits have been filed in Arkansas, Texas and Canada. Poynter represents a group of Arkansas homeowners who apparently reached a settlement with their oil and gas company defendants, which included Chesapeake Operating Inc. Two recent claims in Dallas also named Chesapeake Operating Inc. in earthquake-related claims.

Worst Quake in Oklahoma History

On Nov. 5, 6 and 7, 2011, a series of three earthquakes centered near Prague registered 5.0, 5.7 and 5.0 magnitude. The 5.7 quake, the strongest ever recorded in Oklahoma, was felt in Texas, Arkansas, Kansas and Missouri. A trial on the 24th floor of a St. Louis courthouse was recessed when they felt the tremors and evacuated the building.

Is there any actual evidence that oil and gas fracking is to blame for Oklahoma’s earthquake problems? A couple of years ago, many people said no. But in the last year, several scientific studies have suggested otherwise.

In a March 6, 2014, press release, the U.S. Geological Survey, part of the federal Department of Interior, described the first of the three Prague earthquakes as a “human-induced magnitude 5.0 earthquake” that occurred near active waste-water disposal wells” and is “linked …to fluid injection in those wells.” The USGS scientists said that that first (“human-induced”) earthquake triggered the second larger one, in which Ladra was injured.

A May 2, 2014 statement from the USGS and the Oklahoma Geological Survey said that Oklahoma’s remarkable increase in earthquake activity “do[es] not seem to be due to typical, random fluctuations in natural seismicity rates. … A likely contributing factor to the increase in earthquakes is triggering by wastewater injected into deep geologic formations. This phenomenon is known as injection-induced seismicity, which has been documented for nearly half a century, with new cases identified recently in Arkansas, Ohio, Texas and Colorado.”

Are More Quake-related Lawsuits in Oklahoma’s Future?

Just last week, a Washington Post headline declared: “Oklahoma’s Earthquake Problem is Getting Worse.” In an earlier Post article, former state senator Jerry Ellis described a nightmare scenario. Oklahoma State University, Ellis’s alma mater, is in Stillwater, just up the road from Prague. Ellis asked: “Those high-rise dorms at the campus, if one or more were toppled and several students were killed, would you be able to look back and say you did everything you could to prevent it?”

The May 2, 2014 USGS-OGS joint statement warned:

“Important to people living in central and north-central Oklahoma is that the likelihood of future, damaging earthquakes has increased as a result of the increased number of small and moderate shocks.”