By David Hedges, Publisher

Chesapeake Energy and NiSource officials hoping to set aside a $400 million verdict have come up short in Roane Circuit Court.

The next stop will be the state Supreme Court, and the clock has started ticking.

Defendants in the class-action lawsuit, which has drawn nationwide attention, now have four months to file a petition for appeal with the state Supreme Court. An appeal is not automatic, and the case will have to be accepted by the court before the appeal would actually be heard.

Roane Judge Tom Evans III filed an order last week in which he upheld the verdict returned by a Roane jury following a three-week trial in January.

The 31-page ruling was the final step on the local level. In the ruling, Evans upheld all of his earlier rulings and refused the defendants' request to either dismiss the case or set aside the verdict and grant a new trial.

The four-month period in which the defendants can file an appeal started the day that order was filed, Sept. 25.

Attorneys who filed the class-action lawsuit claimed Columbia Natural Gas had shortchanged over 10,000 royalty owners over a period of several years by deducting expenses from their royalty checks without their knowledge. Chesapeake later bought out Columbia and assumed their liability in the lawsuit.

Jurors sided with the plaintiffs and returned a verdict of $134.4 million, along with another $270 million in punitive damages.

The total award of over $404 million is believed to be the largest class-action verdict in the state's history.