An Oklahoma-based Native American tribe filed a lawsuit in its own tribal court system Friday accusing several oil companies of triggering the state’s largest earthquake that caused extensive damage to some near-century-old tribal buildings.
The Pawnee Nation alleges in the suit that wastewater injected into wells operated by the defendants caused the 5.8-magnitude quake in September and is seeking physical damages to real and personal property, market value losses, as well as punitive damages.
The case will be heard in the tribe’s district court with a jury composed of Pawnee Nation members.
“We are a sovereign nation and we have the rule of law here,” said Andrew Knife Chief, the Pawnee Nation’s executive director. “We’re using our tribal laws, our tribal processes to hold these guys accountable.”
Attorneys representing the 3,200-member tribe in north-central Oklahoma say the lawsuit is the first earthquake-related litigation filed in a tribal court. If an appeal were filed in a jury decision, it could be heard by a five-member tribal Supreme Court, and that decision would be final.
“Usually tribes have their own appellate process, and then, and this surprises a lot of people, there is no appeal from a tribal supreme court,” said Lindsay Robertson, a University of Oklahoma law professor who specializes in Federal Indian Law.
Once a tribal court judgment is finalized, it can be taken to a state district court for enforcement just like any other judgment, Robertson said, but that enforcement action would not subject the judgment to any appeals in state court.
Curt Marshall, one of the attorneys representing the Pawnee Nation, said the lawsuit was filed in tribal court primarily so that the Pawnee Nation could assert its sovereignty.
“The tribe has jurisdiction over civil matters to enforce judgments within its jurisdiction, including judgments over non-Indians,” Marshall said.
While experts say major civil judgments against non-Indians in tribal courts are rare, the U.S. Supreme Court last year left in place the authority of Native American courts to judge complaints against people who are not tribal members. In that case, Dollar General Corp. was sued in tribal court for $2.5 million over allegations that the manager of a store on tribal land made sexual advances toward a 13-year-old boy placed in the store by a tribal youth employment program. The case was returned to tribal court for a ruling on the merits.
Scientists have linked the dramatic spike in earthquakes in Oklahoma to the underground disposal of wastewater that is a byproduct of oil and gas drilling. Oklahoma Corporation Commission regulators have directed oil and gas producers to either close injection wells or reduce the volume of fluids they inject.
The quake, located about 9 miles from the center Pawnee, damaged buildings across the north-central community of about 2,200 residents. The sandstone facade of some buildings fell, several others were cracked and one man suffered a minor head injury when part of a fireplace fell on him. Oklahoma’s governor declared a state of emergency for the entire county.
An attorney for Oklahoma City-based Cummings Oil Company, one of the companies named in the suit, declined to comment until they receive and review the filing. Telephone messages left with an attorney for a second defendant, Tulsa-based Eagle Road Oil, were not immediately returned.
Chad Warmington, the president of the Oklahoma Oil and Gas Association, said that while the tribal jurisdiction is unique, the lawsuit itself is not a surprise.
“The oil and gas industry has been the target of significant litigation over the years, so I wouldn’t think it comes as a surprise that there could be potential new litigation,” he said.
Among the tribal structures damaged in the September earthquake is the former Pawnee Nation Indian School, a sandstone building on the National Register of Historic Places that now houses the tribe’s administrative offices.
“We have extensive cracks throughout all the walls on every single one of these historic buildings, and the cracks run through the entire width of the walls,” Knife Chief said. “We had mortar pop. We had roofs sag. We have ceilings that are bowing.”
According to the lawsuit, both companies were operating wastewater injection wells on lands within the Pawnee Nation less than 10 miles from the epicenter of the Sept. 3 quake.
From 1980 to 2000, Oklahoma averaged only two earthquakes a year of magnitude 2.7 or higher. That number jumped to about 2,500 in 2014 then to 4,000 in 2015 amid a boom in fracking – the process of injecting a high-pressure mix of water, sand or gravel and chemicals into rock to extract oil and gas. It dropped to 2,500 last year, after Oklahoma restricted volume of wastewater injections, according to a study released this week by the U.S. Geological Survey. The agency reported Wednesday in its annual national earthquake outlook that a large portion of Oklahoma and parts of central California are at the highest risk for a damaging quake this year.
At least four separate class-action lawsuits have been filed by the same group of attorneys against various oil companies in Oklahoma connected to large earthquakes dating back to 2011. Another lawsuit has been filed on behalf of a Prague woman injured when a November 2011 quake toppled a stone chimney in her home.
“We understand the industry is very important to the economy of Oklahoma, and the last thing we want to do is come in and shut the operations down,” said Marshall, the tribe’s attorney. “But we do want the oil and gas industry to act responsibly environmentally, and we want them to be held accountable for the damage they’ve created.”
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