Effort Mounted To Reverse Colorado Lone Pine Ban

A substantial effort has been mounted to urge the Colorado Supreme Court to reverse the intermediate appellate court’s ruling on July 3, 2013 in Strudley v. Antero Resources Corp., which determined  that Lone Pine Orders are prohibited under Colorado law.  In so holding, the Strudley court reversed a trial court ruling that had dismissed plaintiffs’ case for failing to provide the court with any competent prima facie evidence of causation.  We discussed the appellate court holding in a recent article, "Does the Lone Pine Still Stand?"

By way of background, Strudley is a complex toxic court action involving numerous claims by the plaintiffs premised on allegations that the defendants committed tortious acts while hydrofracking natural gas oils. The central issue in the case was whether the defendants caused plaintiffs’ alleged injuries, which the plaintiffs vaguely described as “health injuries” from exposure to air and water contaminated by “hazardous gases, chemicals and industrial waste”. 

The trial court, cognizant of the significant discovery and cost burdens presented by a case of this nature, entered a Lone Pine Order requiring plaintiffs to make an early prima facie showing of exposure and causation. When plaintiffs failed to meet this burden, the trial court dismissed plaintiffs’ case. A Lone Pine Order typically requires a plaintiff to present sufficient evidence prior to full discovery to establish a foundational evidentiary showing of one or more critical elements of the claims, or to risk possible dismissal.

In the wake of this decision, the Colorado Supreme Court has been urged by the bar to take a more expansive view of what case management tools are available under Colorado law. The Colorado Defense Lawyers Association, the Colorado Civil Justice League (“CCJL”) and the American Petroleum Institute (“API”) have all filed amicus curiae in support of the use of Lone Pine Orders in Colorado.

In particular, the memoranda of CCJI and API provide excellent surveys on the extent to which state and federal courts throughout the United States have embraced Lone Pine Orders as an important case management tool. These well-written briefs should be read by toxic tort practitioners with an interest in case management.  In a well-crafted brief authored by Snell & Wilmer, CCJL argues that, if permitted to stand, Strudley will chill efforts by trial courts to exercise active case management. 

As the basis for its argument, CCJL relies upon the Colorado Supremes Court’s June 2013 decision in DCP Midstream, LP v. Anadarko Petroleum Corp, in which the court announced that trial courts should consider cost-benefit and proportionality factors in managing discovery. In the decision, the court held  that Colorado law reflects “an evolving growing effort to require active judicial management of pretrial matters to curb discovery abuses, reduce delay, and decrease litigation costs. The Committee Comments to the revised Rule 16 similarly recognize that “where a case is complex or requires special treatment, the Rules provide flexibility so that the parties and Court can alter the procedure.”  Thus, pursuant to revised Rule 16 and Supreme Court precedent, the Court of Appeals should have upheld the use of Lone Pine.

In arguing for a case management scheme that would permit the Colorado trial courts to apply Lone Pine, CCJL cautions that Lone Pine is hardly a hammer that should be arbitrarily or routinely invoked and is not by any means a substitute for summary judgment.  In summary, CCJL argues that Strudley is bad precedent that will only obstruct the creativity of trial judges in managing their cases. 

API’s excellent amicus brief, submitted by Steptoe & Johnson, also argues that Strudley is not consistent with the DCP Midstream. API emphasizes that toxic and mass tort cases present unique case management challenges. 

Cases involving many parties on the plaintiffs’ or defendants’ side often feature broad allegations of liability that are conclusory and lacking in detail, or are based on the parties’ beliefs or dramatic human situations, rather than competent evidence. Allegations of injuries may include every conceivable injury without regard to exposure or actual liability, and without specific information relating to each plaintiff. 

Thus, argues API, the parties and the courts are often required to spend enormous amounts of money, time and energy litigating these cases with respect to every element and defense, although one issue is often dispositive. When that single issue can be dealt with out front, it often results in dismissal or, alternatively, an early mediated settlement.  As the New Jersey court observed in the original Lone Pine case, many defendants understandably will settle such claims, even if meritless, rather than spend the hundreds of thousands of dollars necessary for discovery.  The plaintiff bar despises Lone Pine because it disincentivizes defendants from paying substantial nuisance value settlements in cases of questionable liability.

Considering the jurisprudential strength and logic of the amici curiae arguments, we believe that the Supreme Court will hold that Lone Pine is alive and well in Colorado and reinstate Judge Frick’s trial court decision.   

Lone Pine Order Ends “No Causation” Hydrofracking Case

A Lone Pine Order is an innovative judicial case management tool that requires toxic tort plaintiffs to produce credible expert evidence to support their theory of causation (or another key component of plaintiffs’ claim) prior to the commencement of pre-trial discovery. A Lone Pine Order is designed to weed out frivolous claims before defendants must invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees and incalculable time and effort only to learn prior to trial that plaintiffs cannot establish a prima facie case. Both federal and state court judges have learned by experience that a Lone Pine case management order can end in their infancy baseless cases that would otherwise require an enormous expenditure of judicial time and resources. I have written about the use of Lone Pine Orders both on this blog and in journal articles

The most recent successful use of a Lone Pine Order resulted in an order of dismissal in William G. Strudley v. Antero Resources Corporation, et al., a hydro-fracking toxic tort case pending in the District Court for Denver County in Colorado. On May 9, 2012, District Court Judge Ann B. Frick dismissed plaintiffs’ action due to their failure to comply with the court’s Modified Case Management Order (“MCMO”), which had been entered several months earlier. The MCMO required plaintiffs to provide the Court with sworn expert affidavits establishing the identity of the hazardous substances plaintiffs alleged caused their harm; whether these substances could cause the type of diseases and illnesses claimed by plaintiffs (general causation); the dose or quantitative measurement of the concentration, timing and duration of alleged exposure to each substance; an identifiable, medically recognizable diagnosis of the specific disease or illness for which each plaintiff claims medical monitoring is necessary; and a conclusion that each such disease or illness was caused by the alleged exposure (specific causation).

As Judge Frick noted in her decision, the plaintiffs scrambled to provide a creditable response to the MCMO over the next several months. Plaintiffs submitted a jumble of maps, photos, medical records, air and water sampling analysis reports, together with the affidavit of Thomas L. Kurt, M.D., MPH. In a nutshell, the Court found that Dr. Kurt merely opined that further investigation was necessary, but offered no opinion as to whether the purported exposures were a contributing factor to plaintiffs’ alleged injuries or illnesses. Plaintiffs failed to provide any “statement regarding what constitutes dangerous levels of any substance in drinking water or whether any causal link exists between the study’s results and plaintiffs’ alleged injuries.” The Court determined that Dr. Kurt’s Affidavit was wholly lacking in establishing causation and, at times, presented evidence “circumstantially, in direct contradiction to plaintiffs’ allegations.”

In their Complaint, plaintiffs alleged that “environmental contamination and polluting events caused by the conduct and activities of the defendants… caused the release, spills and discharges of combustible gases, hazardous chemicals and industrial wastes from their oil and gas drilling facilities…” According to the petition, the defendants engaged in oil and gas exploration approximately one mile from the plaintiffs’ residence. Plaintiffs alleged that they relied on a groundwater well for “drinking, bathing, cooking, washing and other daily uses,” but that drilling operations had caused various toxic chemicals to contaminate the air and their water well, forcing them to pack up and abandon their home. In addition to personal injuries, they requested that a medical trust fund be established to monitor their medical conditions.

The result achieved in this case was due to excellent legal work by James D. Thompson III at Vinson & Elkins in Houston and Daniel J. Dunn at Hogan Lovells in Denver, who represented Antero.

It is not enough to draft a motion seeking entry of a Lone Pine Order stating, in sum or substance, “how about that Lone Pine Order, judge?” In their memorandum in support of the Lone Pine Order, the Antero lawyers argued: (1) that the facts alleged in plaintiffs’ Complaint were not sufficient for the court or the parties to expend their resources in discovery; (2) that plaintiffs’ Complaint identified no specific exposure or injury; (3) that plaintiffs’ initial disclosures provided no evidence of specific exposure, injury or causation; (4) that independent evidence concerning the well operations demonstrated that there was no factual basis for plaintiffs’ claims; (5) that the court had the authority to enter a Lone Pine Order; and (6) that the Lone Pine Order would in no way prejudice plaintiffs. The defendants successfully argued that any burdens associated with requiring plaintiffs to make a prima facie showing on their claims were outweighed by the benefits:

A Lone Pine order will assist the parties and this Court in efficiently and effectively assessing the merits of plaintiffs’ claims before engaging in costly and time-consuming full discovery and pre-trial procedures. Such an order will promote efficient pre-trial and trial proceedings by focusing whether plaintiffs can produce admissible expert testimony concerning exposure, injury and causation. If plaintiffs cannot produce such discovery, then the resources of the parties and the Court should not be wasted. Dismissal, in that instance, would be appropriate.


It is not as if plaintiffs’ counsel did ot have the financial or technical resources to comply with the Lone Pine Order if their clients’ case had merit.  Plaintiffs are represented by Napoli Bern Ripka Shkolnik, LLP, a well-heeled New York plaintiff personal injury firm that had the resources to represent hundreds of plaintiffs in the World Trade Center Disaster Site Litigation and battle Exxon  in the New York City MTBE Litigation.  The Napoli Law Firm has now branched out, according to its website, into the oil and gas exploration field and has conducted  informational meetings with groups of  Colorado residents residing near drilling operations concerning their legal options.

If plaintiffs’ evidence of causation was so lacking in the high-profile Strudley case, why shouldn’t all similar hydrofracking cases be "tested" by Lone Pine?  The alternative is to subject oil and gas industry defendants nationwide to the burden of defending frivolous spare-no-expense WTC Disaster Site-style litigations. These toxic tort cases can go on for years and take on a life of their own. Better for the courts and all the litigants if causation evidence must be demonstrated at the outset of the case rather than at the tail end.   



Lone Pine Orders–Shutting The Door On Frivilous Toxic Tort Suits

A Lone Pine Order is a case management tool that requires toxic tort plaintiffs to produce credible evidence to support a key legal component of their claim prior to the commencement of pre-trial discovery.  As Niall A. Paul and Timothy D. Houston of Spilman Thomas & Battle write in a recent IADC Newsletter article titled, "Checking Meritless Mass Tort Claims at the Door–Lone Pine Case Management Orders Reinforce the Obligation of Plaintiffs’ Counsel to Have a Case Before Filing Suit," a Lone Pine Order should be designed to weed out frivolous claims "before a defendant is forced to undergo the financial rigors of protracted discovery and invest hundreds of thousands of dollars and irrecoverable time only to face the stark reality that plaintiffs are devoid of credible evidence–to establish exposure, injury or causation."   In light of the the enormous defense costs consumed in document production and pretrial and the increasing emphasis by in-house counsel on cost control in toxic tort litigation, it is surprising that Lone Pine Orders are not sought by defense counsel more frequently than they are.  A Lone Pine Order can require the plaintiffs to produce credible evidence on the issues of (1) exposure; (2) causation; and (3) damages.  However, that may impose a greater burden on plaintiffs’ counsel than some courts, particularly state courts, may be willing to require early in a litigation. However, I have had success in identifying a single issue–my client’s best issue–and seeking a Lone Pine Order on that sole issue rather than on multiple issues.  For example, in the Happyland Social Club Fire Litigation, which case arose from the deaths of some 87 people at an illegal social club in New York City on March 23, 1990 (see photo above), defendants obtained a  Lone Pine Order on the sole issue of product identification.  Plaintiffs’ theory of the case was that the defendants’ products were fire initiators, fire promoters or, alternatively, emitted toxic fumes when burned.  The contents of the social club were stored by Plaintiffs Steering Committee in a huge warehouse in lower Manhattan.  The Catch-22 for plaintiffs was that if a  product was in the warehouse more or less intact, it could not  have burned and contributed to the deaths of the plaintiffs.  On the other hand, if the product was consumed in the fire, there was no way of identifying the product or its manufacturer.  As a result, plaintiffs were not able make a proper product identification in many instances, pursuant to the Lone Pine Order and, consequently, many defendants were dismissed from this Bronx state court case. It is unlikely that a state court judge in the Bronx would have entered a more onerous order.  In every instance were they are employed, Lone Pine Orders foster judicial economy and substantially reduce the litigationn costs for all parties. In In re Vioxx, 557 F.Supp. 2d 741 (E.D.La. 2008), the federal district court in Louisiana observed that Lone Pine Orders also reduced the litigation expenses incurred by plaintiffs’ counsel in prosecuting mass tort actions.