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Christmas v. Exxon Mobil Corp.

Supreme Court of Mississippi, En Banc

May 15, 2014

TOM CHRISTMAS AND CONSANDRA J. CHRISTMAS
v.
EXXON MOBIL CORPORATION, A NEW JERSEY CORPORATION

COURT FROM WHICH APPEALED: WILKINSON COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT. DATE OF JUDGMENT: 06/23/2011. TRIAL JUDGE: HON. LILLIE BLACKMON SANDERS.

THE JUDGMENT OF THE COURT OF APPEALS IS REVERSED. THE JUDGMENT OF THE CIRCUIT COURT OF WILKINSON COUNTY IS REINSTATED AND AFFIRMED.

FOR APPELLANTS: WAYNE DOWDY, DUNBAR WATT.

FOR APPELLEE: JEFFERY P. REYNOLDS, GENE D. BERRY.

LAMAR, JUSTICE. WALLER, C.J., DICKINSON, P.J., PIERCE AND COLEMAN, JJ., CONCUR. CHANDLER, J., DISSENTS WITH SEPARATE WRITTEN OPINION JOINED BY RANDOLPH, P.J., KITCHENS AND KING, JJ.

OPINION

Page 124

ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI

NATURE OF THE CASE: CIVIL - OTHER

LAMAR, JUSTICE.

¶1. Tom and Consandra Christmas own property neighboring an alligator-infested, waste-disposal site owned by Exxon. They sued Exxon, claiming the alligator infestation was a nuisance. The circuit court granted summary judgment in favor of Exxon, based on the statute of limitations and the prior-trespass doctrine. The Court of Appeals reversed and remanded. We find that Exxon is entitled to summary

Page 125

judgment, but for different reasons than those found by the circuit court.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

¶2. A waste-disposal site has been located between the towns of Centerville and Woodville in rural Wilkinson County for decades. During the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s, the site was owned by Rogers Rental & Landfill Company.[1] From 1984 until 2001, Exxon was the site's only customer and was involved in the site's operations. The extent of Exxon's involvement is disputed. In the early 1980s, Cliff Rogers, the owner of Rogers Rental & Landfill Company, allegedly brought alligators to the site from Louisiana. On July 6, 2001, Exxon purchased the site from Rogers. At Exxon's request, the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks surveyed Exxon's property on July 2, 2007, and reported the presence of eighty-four alligators. The Department noted that this was " a high density of alligators to exist in the wild." Pursuant to a request from Exxon, the Department removed several alligators from Exxon's property in July 2008.

¶3. On December 3, 2003, Tom and Consandra Christmas purchased a thirty-five-acre tract of land that neighbored Exxon's property.[2] Before they completed their purchase, their real estate agent, Alan Ryan, told them that his horse had been injured on the property and that he suspected an alligator did it. The Christmases also saw a few alligators on their property from 2003 to 2007. However, they claim they did not know that their property adjoined an alligator-infested, waste-disposal site until 2007 when Mr. Christmas went onto Exxon's property to retrieve one of his dogs.

¶4. The Christmases sued Exxon on August 11, 2008, alleging that the alligator infestation constituted a nuisance.[3] They did not seek abatement of the nuisance. Rather, they sought monetary damages. Exxon moved for summary judgment, claiming that the statute of limitations had expired, that the Christmases had no recoverable damages, and that it could not be held liable for the presence of wild alligators on its property. The Christmases countered by alleging that the statute of limitations was tolled by the discovery rule, that they could recover for a decrease in their property's value, and that Exxon was responsible for the alligator infestation. The circuit court agreed with Exxon on the statute-of-limitations and damages issues and granted summary judgment in Exxon's favor.

¶5. On appeal, the Court of Appeals reversed and remanded, finding that there was a factual dispute as to when the Christmases learned of the alligator infestation and that the Christmases' knowledge affected the running of the statute of limitations and the sustainability of their property-damage claim.[4] In its petition for certiorari, Exxon argued that: 1) the statute of limitations was not tolled by the discovery ...


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