Last week, the Colorado Supreme Court agreed to review a case that will be watched closely by the legal community. The issue before the court does not concern how cases are to be decided, nor how cases will be tried, but the authority of a trial court to control the discovery process that precedes trial.
The case, Antero Resources Corp., et al v. Strudley, case no. 13SC576, will address whether the Colorado Rules of Civil Procedure permit trial courts to issue so-called Lone Pine orders that are sometimes used in large and complex personal injury cases often involving environmental contamination where there is some doubt that the plaintiffs can prove contamination and causation.
The case involves claims by a family alleging that nearby natural gas operations contaminated their well water, causing them medical harm. Prior to full-blown discovery, the phase of litigation in which parties demand records, conduct depositions and inspections, and otherwise gather information, the trial court required the family to submit evidence showing that their well was contaminated by pollutants from the defendants’ operations, that scientific research links the alleged contaminants to the maladies suffered by the family, and that the contaminants did cause such harm to the family.
After the family responded, the defendants argued that the materials submitted by the family did not meet the threshold showing required by the court’s order. The court agreed and dismissed the case. The Colorado Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the trial court’s order was inconsistent with the Colorado Rules of Civil Procedure.
Questions related to pretrial discovery are enormously significant within the legal community because the cost of conducting discovery can be substantial. Defendants, such as the companies here, contend that the prospect of large discovery costs is often used as leverage to settle cases that are not meritorious. Conversely, plaintiffs and the Colorado Court of Appeals contend that the ordinary rules of civil procedure are sufficient to prevent such scenarios. Trial courts, charged with managing cases in a manner that protects the integrity of the judicial process, are caught in the middle.
The Colorado Defense Lawyers Association, the Colorado Civil Justice League and the American Petroleum Institute filed amicus curie (friend of the court) briefs urging the Supreme Court to review the court of appeals’ decision. Now that the court has agreed to address the issue, organizations on both sides of the issue are expected to participate.