Range Resources can pursue defamation claims in water case

Posted Tuesday, Apr. 23, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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Range Resources Corp. won an appeals court's permission to pursue defamation and business disparagement claims against a Parker County landowner who accused the company of fouling his water well.

In a ruling Tuesday, the Texas Second Court of Appeals in Fort Worth let stand two of Range's claims against Steven Lipsky, who filed suit against the company in 2011.

However, the appeals panel also ordered the Weatherford trial court to dismiss all Range's claims against Lipsky's wife, Shyla, and Alisa Rich, an environmental consultant for the Lipskys. It also set aside claims of aiding and abetting and civil conspiracy against Steven Lipsky.

Lipsky's suit came after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued an administrative order saying the gas producer was responsible for contaminating Lipsky's water with dangerous levels of methane and benzene, which can cause cancer.

Range countersued, alleging the Lipskys and Rich conspired to persuade the EPA to intervene. The EPA withdrew its order in 2012 after Range challenged its findings and the Texas Railroad Commission found that the gas in Lipsky's well was most likely from a different source.

Brent Rosenthal, a lawyer for the Lipskys, declined to comment on the ruling.

Matt Pitzarella, a Range spokesman, said in an e-mail that the company is pleased with the ruling that it has a "valid claim against Mr. Lipsky and we look forward to the opportunity to present our case in court."

The company is seeking $3 million in damages.

Rich and the Lipskys had asked Weatherford State Judge Trey Loftin to throw out Range's countersuit because it violated a Texas law prohibiting so-called Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, or SLAPPs. The law bans litigation meant to stifle public protest.

Loftin rejected that argument in February 2012. The case was appealed, and the appeals court ruled in August that it lacked jurisdiction to overturn the judge's ruling. The panel instead said it was would hear a petition for an order blocking the lower court from enforcing the ruling.

"We conclude that the trial court did not clearly abuse its discretion by determining that Range had presented clear and specific evidence to establish a prima facie case for each essential element of its defamation and business disparagement claims against Steven Lipsky," the appeals court wrote in its opinion.

Loftin attracted attention in May when he promoted his rulings in the case during his run for re-election in a Republican primary. He sent flyers saying he forced the EPA to back down after the agency "using falsified evidence provided by a liberal activist environmental consultant, accused and fined a local gas driller of contaminating wells."

The Lipskys and Rich filed a motion seeking to have Loftin removed from the case because he showed bias. Loftin, who lost his primary bid, agreed to step aside in June and another judge was assigned the case.

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