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Briggs v. Southwestern Energy Production Co.

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

April 2, 2018

ADAM BRIGGS, PAULA BRIGGS, HIS WIFE, JOSHUA BRIGGS AND SARAH BRIGGS, Appellants
v.
SOUTHWESTERN ENERGY PRODUCTION COMPANY

          Appeal from the Order Entered August 8, 2017 in the Court of Common Pleas of Susquehanna County, Civil Division at No(s): 2015-01253

          BEFORE: GANTMAN, P.J., MURRAY, J., and MUSMANNO, J.

          OPINION

          MUSMANNO, J.

         Adam Briggs, Paula Briggs, his wife, Joshua Briggs, and Sarah Briggs (collectively, "Appellants") appeal from the Order granting Southwestern Energy Production Company's ("Southwestern") Motion for Summary Judgment, denying Appellants' Motion for Partial Summary Judgment, and denying as moot Appellants' Motion to Compel.[1] We reverse and remand for further proceedings consistent with this Opinion.

         Appellants own an approximately 11.07-acre parcel of land in Harford Township, Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania.

         Southwestern is the lessee of oil and gas rights on a tract of land adjoining Appellants' property. Since 2011, Southwestern has continuously operated gas wells, known as the Innes Gas Unit and the Folger Gas Unit, respectively, on property adjacent to Appellants' property. Southwestern engages in hydraulic fracturing to extract natural gas from the Marcellus Shale formation through wellbores located on the Innes and Folger Gas Units.

          Southwestern does not have an oil and gas lease concerning Appellants' property.

         On November 5, 2015, Appellants filed a Complaint, asserting claims of trespass and conversion, and requesting punitive damages. Appellants alleged that Southwestern, in its operation of drilling units located on the adjoining property, has unlawfully been extracting natural gas from beneath Appellants' property. Appellants also alleged that Southwestern's actions constituted a past and continuing trespass.

         Southwestern filed an Answer and New Matter on December 23, 2015, asserting, inter alia, that Appellants' claims were barred by the rule of capture.[2] Southwestern also filed a counterclaim for declaratory relief, requesting that the trial court confirm that Southwestern did not trespass on Appellants' property.

         Appellants filed an Answer to Southwestern's New Matter on January 7, 2016.

         Both parties engaged in discovery. Relevantly, Appellants sent Southwestern three sets of Interrogatories. Southwestern filed Objections and Answers to each of Appellants' Interrogatories. On May 16, 2016, Appellants filed a Motion to Compel answers to Interrogatories and a Motion for Sanctions. Specifically, Appellants claimed that Southwestern's responses to the Second and Third Interrogatories were evasive and "demonstrate[d] a calculated scheme of obduration[.]" Southwestern filed an Answer on June 3, 2016.

         On April 24, 2017, Southwestern filed a Motion for Summary Judgment and brief in support thereof, asserting, inter alia, that Appellants' trespass claim must fail because Southwestern had not entered Appellants' property, and the rule of capture bars damages for drainage of natural gas due to hydraulic fracturing. Additionally, Southwestern requested summary judgment as to its counterclaim for a declaratory judgment.

         On May 15, 2017, Appellants filed a Motion to Stay Resolution of Southwestern's Motion for Summary Judgment. Appellants argued that the case was not yet "ripe" for resolution on summary judgment because Southwestern had not provided Appellants with sufficient answers to their Interrogatories, which are necessary to determine the extent of Southwestern's actions in extracting natural gas. Southwestern filed an Answer.

         On June 14, 2017, Appellants filed a Motion for Partial Summary Judgment, and a brief in support thereof, as to the issue of liability.

          The trial court held oral argument on both Motions. By an Order dated August 8, 2017, [3] the trial court granted Southwestern's Motion for Summary Judgment, denied Appellants' Motion for Partial Summary Judgment, and denied as moot Appellants' Motion to Compel. Therein, the trial court agreed with Southwestern that, as a matter of law, the rule of capture precluded recovery by Appellants.

         Appellants filed a timely Notice of Appeal and a court-ordered Pa.R.A.P. 1925(b) Concise Statement of matters complained of on appeal.

On appeal, Appellants present the following claims for our review:
I. Did the [trial court] err in determining that the rule of capture precluded any liability on the part of [Southwestern] under the theories of trespass or conversion for natural gas extracted by [Southwestern, ] even if said natural gas originated under the lands of [] Appellants and was extracted from under Appellants' land by [Southwestern] through hydr[aulic ]fracturing?
II. Does the rule of capture apply to the extraction of natural gas from under land owned by a third party (such as [] Appellants here) through the process of hydr[aulic ]fracturing[, ] so as to preclude any liability on the part of [Southwestern] under the theories of trespass or conversion for natural gas extracted by [Southwestern, ] even if said natural gas originated under the lands of [] Appellants and was extracted from under Appellants' land?

Brief for Appellants at 2 (quotation marks omitted).[4]

         Our standard of review in evaluating a trial court's grant or denial of ...


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