Alligator-Infested Dump Owners Avoid Liability
The Supreme Court of Mississippi has determined that the owners of a waste disposal site (“Site”) overrun by alligators cannot be held liable for the alleged depreciation of a neighbor’s land.
In 2003, Tom and Consandra Christmas (“Purchasers”) were in the market for a piece of land on which to build a house and spend quiet afternoons fishing with their grandchildren. Their real estate representative showed them a thirty-five-acre tract complete with multiple ponds, but warned them that his horse had been injured on the land and that he suspected it had been attacked by alligators. Nonetheless, Purchasers bought the land and moved into a trailer on the property.
Five years later, the Purchasers sued Exxon Mobil (“Exxon”), the owner of the Site, which was located on land abutting their property. Purchasers alleged that an unnatural alligator infestation on the Site was spilling over onto their land, causing a nuisance and depreciating their property. Purchasers claimed that Exxon had intentionally brought alligators to the Site as a way to monitor its toxicity levels. A former worker of the Site testified that, indeed, in the 1980s a number of alligators had been transported to the Site because “if the alligators started dying or becoming ill after being exposed to the refinery waste sludge, then this would indicate a possible problem for humans exposed to the toxic waste sludge.” At the time, Exxon did not own the Site, but was its only customer, and, according to the former worker, had “complete control” of its operations. Exxon later bought the Site.
Purchasers alleged that they had seen so many alligators on their land that they were afraid to go outside, and that the alligators had killed two of their calves and their pet dog. In their suit, they alleged that due to Exxon’s purposeful infusion of alligators into the area, the alligator population had gotten completely out of control. When Purchasers complained to Exxon about the infestation, Exxon called the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, which responded by transporting a number of alligators from the property. Nonetheless, according to Purchasers, the problem persisted. Purchasers stated that the alligators constituted a permanent private nuisance for which they were entitled to the value of the diminution in market value of their property.
The circuit court granted summary judgment in favor of Exxon. Purchasers appealed, and the Court of Appeals reversed and remanded. Exxon appealed, and the Supreme Court of Mississippi reversed once again, determining that Exxon could not be held liable for the presence of alligators on Purchasers’ land. Specifically, in granting summary judgment for Exxon, the court stated that there was “no evidence that Exxon brought the alligators to the property, or that it is restraining the alligators in any way.” Because Exxon did not own the Site at the time the alligators were allegedly brought onto the land, and because “there is no evidence that the alligators currently on Exxon’s property are descended from the alligators allegedly brought onto the property,” Exxon should not be held liable.
Furthermore, held the court, alligators are wild animals and a protected species under state law. Because the Mississippi legislature deems it illegal to hunt, kill, catch, chase, or possess alligators, Exxon’s hands were tied in the face of Purchaser’s complaints about the infestation. In short, stated the court, “wild alligators not reduced to possession, but which exist in a state of nature, cannot constitute a private nuisance for which a land owner can be held liable.”
Christmas v. Exxon Mobil Corp., 138 So.3d 123 (Miss. 2014).