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Shockley v. Hoechst Celanese Corp.

ELR Citation: 23 ELR 20155
Nos. No. 6:90-0018-3, 793 F. Supp. 670/35 ERC 1304/(D.S.C., 04/02/1992)

The court upholds the jury conviction of a chemical manufacturer and a chemical reclamation operator for common-law violations stemming from damage to groundwater under adjacent landowners' property, and denies the defendants' post-verdict motions for judgment as a matter of law. Landowners adjacent to the manufacturer's facility and a neighboring reclamation facility filed causes of action against the defendants for damages under common-law theories of strict liability for ultra-hazardous activities, trespass, nuisance, and negligence.

The court first holds that strict liability for ultra-hazardous activities as expressed in Restatement (Second) of Torts §519 is firmly established in the common law of South Carolina, and the case law supports applying strict liability to the use, storage, and disposal of hazardous chemicals, such as those involved in this case. The court next holds that the jury was justified in finding that the manufacturer engaged in the disposal of hazardous chemicals, for which they are strictly liable. The manufacturer's use of an independent contractor to handle its work involving an abnormally dangerous activity does not insulate the manufacturer from liability. Evidence also was sufficient for the jury to find that the manufacturer knew or had reason to know that the work it employed the reclamation operator to do involved an abnormally dangerous activity.

The court holds that ample record evidence supports the jury's finding of trespass. The manufacturer intended delivery of hazardous chemicals to the reclamation operator and knew or should have known that the resulting damages may follow from that act. The manufacturer's activities were abnormally dangerous, were performed negligently, and resulted in harm to the landowners' property. Moreover, the court holds that the jury was justified in finding that the manufacturer is liable for a trespass committed by the reclamation operator, because the manufacturer knew or should have known that the activities it hired the operator to perform were likely to involve a trespass on the land of another.

The court holds that the jury was justified in finding the manufacturer liable for nuisance, because the record evidence indicated that the manufacturer knowingly delivered rusty, aging, and leaking barrels of hazardous chemicals to the reclamation operator's facility. Thus, the jury could reasonably conclude that the manufacturer participated to a substantial extent in carrying on the nuisance. The court also holds that the manufacturer's claim that the landowners did not conduct environmental audits before they purchased the adjoining property is no defense to a nuisance cause of action.

Finally, the court holds that the jury was justified in finding both defendants guilty of negligence, because the evidence showed that they negligently disposed of hazardous chemicals in a way that contaminated the groundwater under the landowners' property, failed to properly supervise the disposal, allowed the hazardous chemicals to escape into the environment in violation of South Carolina law, and failed to warn the landowners of the contamination. The evidence does not support the claim that the landowners assumed the risk, since no evidence exists of the landowners' prior knowledge of contamination on the property.

Counsel for Plaintiffs
J. Kendall Few, John C. Few
Few & Few
850 Wade Hampton Blvd., P.O. Box 10085, Fed. Station
Greenville SC 29603
(803) 232-6456

Counsel for Defendants
David L. Freeman, Bradford W. Wyche
Wyche, Burgess, Freeman & Parham
44 E. Camperdown Way, P.O. Box 728, Greenville SC 29602
(803) 242-3131

GEORGE ROSS ANDERSON, Jr., District Judge.