West Virginia Record

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Supreme Court sides with surface owners in trespassing suit

By Kyla Asbury | Jun 8, 2019


CHARLESTON — The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals sided with surface owners in an appeal of a lawsuit where EQT argued it could access mineral rights via surface owners property without permission.

Justice John Hutchison authored the June 5 opinion of the court. 

"Our holding today does not challenge or constrain the drilling methods chosen by the oil and gas industry," Hutchison wrote. "The industry has shown that horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing techniques are evolving at a rapid pace and are an economical and efficient tool for producing hydrocarbons. Our opinion only affirms a classical rule of property jurisprudence: it is trespassing to go on someone’s land without the right to do so."

Hutchison wrote that a mineral owner or lessee has an implicit right to use the overlying surface to access only the minerals directly below the surface.

"Using the surface to extract minerals elsewhere, without the permission of the surface owner, is a trespass," Hutchison wrote. "Should the mineral owner or lessee want to utilize the surface to access minerals under neighboring land, they can certainly reach a separate agreement with the surface owner."

Margot Beth Crowder and David Wentz own the surface of land in Doddridge County, while EQT holds a century-old lease that allows the company to drill wells to extract oil and gas from beneath the plaintiffs’ surface estate.

The plaintiffs brought a lawsuit against EQT in 2014 to challenge EQT’s use of their surface estate to drill horizontal wells that extend under neighboring properties so that EQT can extract natural gas from beneath those properties, according to the suit.

The plaintiffs argued that EQT’s lease does not allow the company to use their surface property to extract oil and gas from neighboring mineral estates. They argued EQT was trespassing. 

Doddridge Circuit Court agreed with the plaintiffs and entered an order granting partial summary judgment, finding EQT trespassed and an jury awarded the plaintiffs $190,000.00 in damages. EQT then appealed the circuit court’s partial summary judgment order and the jury’s damage award.

"To protect property rights, this Court’s goal is to promote clear and simple rules of land ownership, and 'to avoid bringing upon the people interminable confusion of land titles; instead, we must endeavor to prevent and eradicate uncertainty of such titles,'" Hutchison wrote. "Our opinion merely restates a bright-line rule founded long ago in the common law that surface owners and mineral owners (or their lessees) can easily navigate."

West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals Case number: 17-0968

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West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals