Critics say verdict bad for business

By David Hedges, Publisher
Times Record-Roane County Reporter

Those who disagree with a $404 million verdict returned by a jury in Roane Circuit Court say the decision will be bad for business.

The award, which includes $270 million in punitive damages, came in a case involving more than 8,000 natural gas well royalty owners. The class action suit alleges royalty owners were defrauded out of payments due them.

One of the defendants, Chesapeake Energy, said it is reconsidering its plans to build its regional headquarters in West Virginia.

Chesapeake, which bought Columbia Natural Resources after the lawsuit was filed in 2003, had plans to build its eastern regional headquarters in Charleston.

Governor Joe Manchin first made the announcement in his state of the state address in January 2006. In July the company said it had purchased 27 acres at the NorthGate Business Park in Charleston.

The company said the headquarters, a $30 million investment, would house 250 employees representing about $20 million in annual payroll.

Now the company says it is reevaluating its plans.

"Until this happened we were moving full speed ahead with the plans," said Mike John, vice president of the company's eastern operations. "It's premature to say we have changed our minds about building here and making Charleston our headquarters, but it's safe to say those plans are on hold."

Chesapeake, based in Oklahoma City, paid $2.2 billion to purchase CNR in November 2005.

The verdict returned on Jan. 27 came after three weeks of testimony. By the following day, which was a Sunday, Chesapeake and another defendant in the case, NiSource, already had posted responses to the verdict on their company Web sites.

NiSource said the verdict "could have a chilling effect on future oil and natural gas development in the state."

The W.Va. Oil and Natural Gas Association said the decision would impact the entire natural gas industry in the state.

"If this verdict is allowed to stand, it will have far-reaching negative implications," Corky Demarco, WVONGA executive director, said...

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