It’s deju vu all over again in Chesapeake Operating, Inc. v. Sanchez Oil & Gas Corp. More accurately, it is a variation of Reeder v. Wood County Energy, LLC, et al. applied to Louisiana operations. For the impact of the exculpatory clause protecting the operator from liability in the 1989 Model Form JOA, see my post (co-authored by Marty Averill), “Operator Not Liable for Breach of 1989 Model Form Operating-Agreement, Part Two”. 

This one is a bit different.  Chesapeake and Sanchez entered into a JOA to operate leases in Louisiana. Chesapeake sued Sanchez for failing to pay its proportionate share of drilling and completion costs. Sanchez asserted the defense that Chesapeake had breached the  JOA in, as the court put it, “several ways”,  and did not perform its work in a good and workmanlike manner.

The key issue was the scope of the exculpatory clause, and whether Sanchez was required to prove that Chesapeake acted with gross negligence when it breached the JOA. The clause mirrors Article V.A of the 1977 and 1982 Model Form JOA’s (I assume one of those forms was at issue, but the court didn’t say):

 Chesapeake  . . .  shall be the Operator  . . .  and shall conduct and direct and have full control of all operations on the Contract Area . . .  . It shall conduct all such operations in a good and workmanlike manner, but it shall have no liability as Operator to the other parties for losses sustained or liabilities incurred, except such as may result from gross negligence or willful misconduct.

Sanchez argued that the clause only applied to claims that Chesapeake had not conducted the operations in a good and workmanlike manner; Chesapeake responded that the exculpatory clause also applied to allegations that it breached the JOA.

The court noted that the Fifth Circuit construed an identical clause in Stine v. Marathon Oil Company, and held that protection of the exculpatory clause extended to breaches of the JOA and that the operator was not liable unless its actions were grossly negligent or willful. The court also noted that three Texas appellate courts had reached the opposite conclusion, holding that the clause only applied to claims that the operator failed to act as a reasonably prudent operator.

The court stated that clause would apply to Sanchez’s defenses if Stine controlled but would not apply if the Texas appellate decisions controlled. The court stated that it could only rely on the appellate decisions if they “comprised unanimous or near-unanimous holdings from several—preferably a majority—of the intermediate appellate courts of the state in question.”Here, although the appellate courts were unanimous, they were not a majority of the Texas appellate courts. Thus, the court deemed itself bound to follow Stine.

The clause applied to Sanchez’s affirmative defenses. Because Sanchez had not presented evidence that Chesapeake’s breaches resulted from gross negligence or intentional misconduct, the court dismissed Sanchez’s defenses.

Big and Important Caveat: Chesapeake is a Texas case ostensibly applying Louisiana law. It is not from a Louisiana court.  The parties agreed that Louisiana and Texas law would be identical, so the court looked to Texas cases. I’m sure there are Louisiana non-operators who would (and will) take issue with this result.