Clock Ticking for Texas Families to Take Legal Action on Fracking Pollution

Texas has a two-year statute of limitations, which means people have just two years from the time they notice a problem until they file a lawsuit.

Attorney Tomas Ramirez represents the Cerny family of Karnes County, Texas, who sued oil companies over toxic emissions and had the lawsuit dismissed. He says Texas' two-year statute of limitations works in the oil and gas industry's favor. Credit: Lance Rosenfield/Prime

Attorney Tomas Ramirez is confident he'll win an appeal in the case of a Karnes County, Texas family who sued two oil companies claiming their lives had been ruined by toxic emissions.

But even a win on appeal could take up to two years, and Ramirez thinks the delay could discourage other people from filing similar claims.

The difficulty is that Texas has a two-year statute of limitations, which means people have just two years from the time they become aware of a problem until the time they file a lawsuit. The Eagle Ford Shale boom in Karnes County began in 2012, bringing it with it thousands of oil and gas wells and the kinds of emissions that Mike and Myra Cerny said made them sick.

For people in the Eagle Ford Shale, where the Cernys live, that means time is ticking to near zero, said Thomas McGarity, a University of Texas law school professor who specializes in environmental and administrative law.

"If a plaintiff waits too long they will be barred by the statutes from bring a cause of action," McGarity said. "So to that degree it works in the defendants' favor."

The Cernys filed their lawsuit in 2013 and last month Judge Stella Saxon dismissed it, agreeing with arguments by Marathon Oil Corp. and Plains Exploration & Production (PXP) that the Cernys didn't have enough medical and scientific evidence to prove to a jury that they had been sickened by oil field emissions.

Mike and Myra Cerny/Credit: Jim Morris, Center for Public Integrity

Ramirez filed a notice of appeal on Aug. 26 and is now waiting to hear from the Fourth Court of Appeals of Texas about deadlines for detailed written arguments. He said his main argument will be that the judge did not properly apply the law.

Marathon and PXP didn't respond to requests for comment for this article.

Despite the judge's decision in favor of the oil companies, Ramirez thinks company lawyers made baseless arguments that won't withstand an appeal.

But he thinks the time-consuming appeal process is a boon for the industry because the delay could protect the industry from similar lawsuits.

"If somebody is waiting to sue until after our case is finished, it may be too late for them," Ramirez said. "The courts will throw them out because of the statute of limitations.

"That will...give a huge advantage to the industry not to have to worry about new cases. That's what's going to save the industry a boat load."

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