Jury “Earthquake” Discussions Did Not Warrant New Trial

The Eight Circuit, in a case involving a determination regarding the amount of damages to property owners purportedly caused by vibrations from drilling operations, has refused to order a new trial arising out of an energy company’s challenge to a jury verdict against it where the jurors discussed “fracking” and “earthquakes” even though there was no evidence at trial regarding those activities.

Specifically, during jury deliberations in Ruby Hiser v. XTO Energy, 768 F.3d 773 (8th Cir. 2014), the jury inquired of the court: “Were they drilling only or were they also fracking? The jury returned a verdict for the plaintiff. On a motion to vacate the verdict, the Court’s hearing probed into extent to which the jurors discussed “fracking” and “earthquakes” in their deliberations. One juror admitted that he “asked whether [the defendant] fracked the well in question”; and other “jurors expressed unfamiliarity with fracking” with one juror explaining “his understanding of it.”

The jurors otherwise disagreed whether the jury continued their discussions  after the court had instructed the jury to only consider the evidence before it. The district court refused to entertain a new trial and determined that the jury was not prejuced by any outside evidence.

On appeal, the Eighth Circuit affirmed the district court.  Specifically, the court determined that:

As for the earthquake discussion, there is not a reasonable possibility that it prejudiced [the defendant] or altered the verdict. To the extent this discussion occurred pre-instruction, then, like the fracking discussion, there was no prejudice. Even if the district court believed the earthquake discussion occurred post-instruction, there is not a reasonable possibility of prejudice because, at most, some jurors briefly and generally discussed news reports about gas drilling and earthquakes in Arkansas (not specifically [plaintiff’s property]….

As such, and even assuming the jury had discussions that were extraneious pursuant to the Federal Rules of Evidence, the defendant did not demonstrate that the discussions “prejudiced it or altered the verdict.”

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