Fear about dangers in the vicinity of property insufficient to constitute nuisance

by Andrea Vaage

Smith & Wunderlich v Conoco Phillips Pipe Line Company
Federal 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, September 15, 2015

Conoco Phillips owns a pipeline constructed in 1930 that runs through part of West Alton, a small town in Missouri. A leak was discovered near the town in 1963. The source of leak was repaired, but no remediation efforts were made to clean up the spill. Contaminants from the spill were discovered at a residence near the spill in 2002. Phillips purchased that residence and two others. Under supervision of the Missouri DNR, the buildings were demolished; 4,000 cubic yards of soil was removed; and monitoring wells were set up to test for chemicals of concern (COCs) such as benzene, toluene, ethyle benzene, xylenes, and lead.

Plaintiffs, the Smiths and Wunderlichs, property owners within 1.1 mile radius of contamination site, filed a class action suit in district court October 2011. Their complaint identified two separate classes, each including property owners within a 1.1 mile radius of the contamination site. The first class sought injunctive relief and monetary damages for creation of a nuisance and negligence for remediation. The second class sought compensation for ongoing expenses of medical monitoring due to potential exposure to pollutants from the pipeline leak. The district court certified the first class, but not the second. In certifying the first class the court relied on evidence and expert testimony that contaminants were found in the monitoring wells, that pollutants could continually shift, and that MTBE, a gasoline additive, had been found at one residence one quarter mile away from the contamination site. Phillips appealed the court’s decision to certify the first class.

In cases of certification, the district court is granted broad discretion. A higher court will only reverse a certification where there has been an abuse of discretion or an error of law. Four standards must be met to certify a class: numerosity, commonality, typicality, and adequacy of representation.

In order for commonality to be met, the plaintiff’s must show that all class members suffered the same injury. The plaintiff’s demonstrated contamination by citing the MBTE found on the Wunderlichs’ property. However, there was no MBTE found at the contamination site. None of the chemicals found at the contamination site were detected at any of the class members’ property; however, plaintiffs’ claim that physical invasion is not required for the contamination site to be a nuisance, because the fear of contamination depressed their property values. The Court cited recent cases that establish that fear alone is not enough to meet the requirement that a nuisance be visible or capable of physical detection. “Negative publicity resulting in unfounded fear about dangers in the vicinity of the property does not constitute a significant interference with the use and enjoyment of land:  The potential for contamination does not amount to sufficient proof of a nuisance. Since plaintiff’s were unable to establish contamination on the class land, the nuisance claim fails.

The Court determined the fear of contamination without sufficient supporting proof was not enough to establish a claim for common law nuisance. The Court found the district court ruling certifying the class was an abuse of discretion. The case was reversed and remanded.

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