Texas Supreme Court says Range Resources defamation suit can proceed

Steve Lipsky contends that Range Resources was responsible for high levels of methane in his well water in Parker County.
Steve Lipsky contends that Range Resources was responsible for high levels of methane in his well water in Parker County. Star-Telegram/Khampha Bouaphanh

Fort Worth-based Range Resources may continue seeking defamation damages from a Parker County man who claimed its drilling fouled his well, but may not go after his wife.

The Texas Supreme Court on Friday allowed the oil and gas company to continue its defamation and disparagement suit against Steve Lipsky, whose accusation that the company polluted his family’s drinking water sparked a bitter dispute between the Texas Railroad Commission and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Range, however, may not pursue conspiracy claims against Lipsky’s wife, Shyla Lipsky, or Alisa Rich, a toxicologist the couple hired to test their well, the high court said, upholding a 2013 appeals court ruling.

The case concerned a tort reform law intended to protect free speech that opens the door for the early dismissal of meritless legal claims filed to intimidate critics — so-called Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation.

So much methane migrated into the well on Lipsky’s 13-acre property that he could ignite the stream flowing from it with the flick of a lighter. He blamed the phenomenon on hydraulic fracturing — or some element of Range’s nearby Barnett Shale operations which it has since sold.

Range Resources maintained that it held no responsibility. State regulators agreed and the EPA eventually withdrew its complaint. In 2011, Range filed a $3 million lawsuit against the Lipskys and Rich alleging that the three conspired to “defame and disparage” Range and force federal regulators to intervene.

The company took issue with a number of Lipsky’s assertions, including that the company contaminated the well, that Lipsky could literally light his water on fire (rather than the gas flowing within the water), and that the company treated the Lipskys like “criminals.”

Attorneys for the Lipskys and Rich asked courts to dismiss the defamation suit, pointing to the 2011 law that sought to prevent tactical lawsuits filed to quiet critics by drowning them in legal fees.

After a lower court allowed Range’s lawsuit to proceed, the Second Court of Appeals in Fort Worth ordered that court to set aside all charges except the defamation and disparagement allegations against Steve Lipsky. The court said Range provided no clear evidence that the others had conspired with him, but said the company could continue its suit against Steve Lipsky because his statements were not presented as opinion and were “susceptible of being proved true or false.”

On Friday, the state’s highest court upheld that ruling by denying petitions from Lipsky and Range.