MarkWest appealing judge’s ruling that opened settlement in Hallowich case

April 22, 2013
Stephanie Hallowich of Hickory speaks outside the Hilton Garden Inn at Southpointe in July 2010 about her negative experiences with gas drilling. (O-R file photo)

Attorneys for natural gas company MarkWest have appealed to state Superior Court a Washington County judge’s ruling that opened to public scrutiny the record of a $750,000 settlement with Chris and Stephanie Hallowich of Mt. Pleasant Township.

The amount of the settlement was kept a secret until Washington County President Judge Debbie O’Dell Seneca issued an order and opinion last month, overturning a ruling 18 months ago by her former colleague on the bench, Paul Pozonsky.

“This court found no case establishing a constitutional right of privacy for businesses,” O’Dell Seneca wrote.

Of the total, the Hallowiches, who were the subject of news reports on the natural gas industry both nationally and internationally, received $594,820; their attorneys received a counsel fee of $150,000; and the attorneys’ firm also received $5,179 as a reimbursement for costs of the litigation.

From their share, the Hallowiches decided to apportion $10,000 to each of their children, both minors, which they would place in a trust or annuity account.

A court document signed by the family’s attorney states, “There is presently no medical evidence that support these claims are related to any exposure to the activities of defendants.”

But the litigants established an arbitration process to “assess and adjudicate any possible future claims of personal injury for Mr. and Mrs. Hallowich and their children, including medical examinations of the children.”

The sole part of the settlement that became known before O’Dell Seneca issued her order and opinion was that Range Resources purchased the Hallowiches’ 10-acre property in Mt. Pleasant Township for $500,000.

While attorneys for MarkWest Energy Partners LP and MarkWest Energy Group LLC filed a notice of appeal, they have 30 days in which to enumerate the issues in O’Dell Seneca’s opinion that they want the appellate court to review.

Attorneys Phillip Binotto and Erin W. McDowell did not immediately return calls for comment about the particulars of their appeal.

Range Resources spokesman Matt Pitzarella said last month that Range did not plan to appeal O’Dell Seneca’s decision. Other defendants in the case are Williams Gas/Laurel Mountain Midstream and the state Department of Environmental Protection.

When attorneys physically unsealed a 56-page court record mere hours after O’Dell Seneca’s ruling, a document known as the settlement agreement was missing, so the Observer-Reporter and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette are continuing to try to gain access to it.

The Hallowiches’ attorney, Peter Villari of Conshohocken in eastern Pennsylvania, brought the approximately inch-and-a-half-thick document with him to court for a hearing earlier this month. He testified that he thought the settlement agreement was made part of the official record, although he personally did not file it with the Washington County prothonotary’s office.

O’Dell Seneca asked each side to submit briefs, and she did not rule on the matter before MarkWest filed the appeal.

Meanwhile, Frederick N. Frank, attorney for the Post-Gazette, requested that O’Dell Seneca schedule a conference call with attorneys, including Colin Fitch, who represents the Observer-Reporter, on the status of the newspapers’ request that the missing exhibit be produced as part of the official record in the Hallowich case.

“It is the Post-Gazette’s position that MarkWest Energy’s appeal did not divest this court of jurisdiction to rule on the request made by the Observer-Reporter and the Post-Gazette,” Frank wrote.

No date had been scheduled as of the close of business Monday.

Barbara S. Miller covers politics, Washington County government and a variety of other topics for the Observer-Reporter. She is a graduate of Washington & Jefferson College, majoring in English and history. Follow her on Twitter @reporterbarb.

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