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Walters v. Pantry Inc.

ELR Citation: 29 ELR 20574
Nos. 97-2543, 173 F.3d 427/48 ERC 1189/(4th Cir., 02/19/1999)

The court upholds a jury verdict awarding a property owner actual damages but not punitive damages in a negligence and trespass case brought against a service station chain after one of the chain's stores contaminated the property owner's land with gasoline. The court first holds that the district court did not abuse its discretion in excluding evidence of 40 releases discovered at other chain stores after the release at issue. The probative value of the evidence of the 40 releases as it relates to the chain's intent is questionable. The evidence does not establish the cause of the release or the party responsible for causing the release. Further, the district court concluded that the slight probative value of the evidence was outweighed by its prejudicial nature. The district court weighed the risks of confusion, misleading the jury, delay, and waste of time in ruling that it did not want to convert the trial into one in which the chain would have to explain the many differences between the 40 additional releases and the one at issue. The court next holds that the district court did not abuse its discretion in excluding evidence of reimbursements made by the state environmental agency to the chain for work completed in response to petroleum releases at various sites throughout the state. The chain's degree of culpability, demonstrated by the evidence of the state payments, would only be relevant if the jury awarded punitive damages, but the jury found that the property owner did not establish willful, wanton, or reckless conduct by the chain sufficient for punitive damages.

Counsel for Plaintiff
Joseph A. Rhodes Jr.
Haynsworth, Baldwin, Johnson & Greaves
918 S. Pleasantburg Dr., Greenville SC 29603
(864) 271-7410

Counsel for Defendant
Andrew S. O'Hara
Moore & Van Allen
NationsBank Corporate Center
100 N. Tryon St., 47th Fl., Charlotte NC 28202
(704) 331-1000

Before Williams, Motz, and King, JJ.