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Like a “good” neighbor? Premises liability cases and chemical seepage.

I. Hidden Hazard - Real Injury

You’ve probably heard the advertising slogan, “like a good neighbor…”. In a similar way, unfortunately, you can’t always pick your neighbor. When it comes to premises liability cases, it’s worth looking at some of these fences make good neighbors cases. In other words, some of the worst injuries incurred and explored by a qualified premises liability attorney are for unseen hazards. Hazards that creep under and around fencing.

In a quiet corner of Alamance County, just off of State Road 1735, a fairly popular and busy convenience store simply known as Mini-Mart operated at the intersection on Hopedale Road. Gas was sold at this location for many years following its original acquisition, in 1965.

The experienced premises liability attorney who later entered the case was to detail the long and twisted history of changing property ownerships in the neighborhood. The most important factor in later claims for damages and injuries, however, was the sometimes hidden, and literally buried, history of three tanks that had originally been part of the 1964 purchase and subsequent gas sales.

II. Uncovering Hidden Premises Hazards

Over the years, there were significant changes to the way the gasoline was stored at the minimart. In the early 1970s, when one of the first four affected families purchased the property, there were three underground storage tanks. They were, the Premises liability attorney later showed, in use at this time. The tanks were of very different sizes, as well: 550 gallons; 1,000 gallons; 2,000 gallons. One of the reasons that this first family lived in the area was because they operated an automobile repair garage and body shop as well as a grocery store in an adjacent building. They loved the ability to live in one their properties, and that they could walk to work. They also loved the rural nature of the area…such as being able to enjoy fresh well water.

The issue of the contamination leaks eventually affected four separate families in the area. As a premises liability issue, it was especially complicated. It’s also worth noting that these complications aren’t always self-evident: not all affected people are aware of being harmed by a risk or a hazard on a particular property. A premises liability attorney does due diligence to find out if other people may have been similarly harmed by the risk or hazard. This type of investigation has to be handled properly, especially so as to protect any questions of evidence or… in this case especially…who actually had the records of control or duty of control over the three hidden tanks.

III.   Hot Potato: Premises liability attorneys help establish duty,

As the years went by, the problems became somewhat more evident. This was based in part on the fact that in 1976 new tanks were put in, and the old tanks were singly disregarded or ignored as they emptied. A property owner in 1978 was prompted to recall –under questioning from the premises liability attorney two decades later–of how gasoline was “lost” from the tanks. A former employee at the convenience store, who was later when the original plan is, testified to the following discovery: the oil company that owned the tanks in 1978 knew that “there was a loss of somewhere of a thousand to two thousand gallons of gasoline from one of the underground storage tanks.” Ms. H. related to the premises liability attorney that she had seen some people “digging around one of the midway tanks.” Afterwards, she heard about the loss and told the premises liability attorney “the dirt around the tank was wet and smelled of gasoline.”

Another property owner – also eventually represented by the premises liability attorney whose home and well were in the vicinity of the tanks testified in a deposition that he “remembered the report of an unaccounted-for loss of gasoline at the MiniMart property.” Interestingly, however, he also insisted there was another reason than leakage for the loss. This worker told the premises liability attorney that the store owners began to “lock the pumps… they did not have any other problems with loss of the gas” after this. This raised the possibility that leakage may not have been the initial problem in the 1970s.

IV.  When Did the Chemical Hazard Begin?

By the 1980s, concerns and investigations about contamination from the three wells was beginning to really percolate. The Alamance County Health Department (ACHD) was notified in late 1979 about a possible contamination of well water to a neighbor’s home. The investigation escalated by November of the next year, when the ACHD had contacted the ground water section of the Natural Resources and Community Development (NRCD) department for north carolina. Two of the gas tanks, and at least one groundwater well, were then placed under investigation. Investigations continued over years, the premises liability attorney emphasized. By the middle of the 1980s, two families in the area noticed that they are well water was “smelling like gasoline.” Initial reports from the NRCD were that the water had grease and oil, but they said it was not contaminated with gasoline. These findings were to be significantly challenged by the premises liability attorney who went on to represent four other families in the area. Wisely, at the time of the first negative finding by the NRCD, two of the families asked for additional testing. By the end of the decade, a new series of investigations for the entire area had begun to search for possible sources of ground water contamination.

The premises liability lawyer went on to show that contamination did not always proceed on a level or predictable rate. Instead the premises liability lawyer had studies indicating that (a) fluctuating concentrations and of (b) various gasoline components were actually available from studies in the late 1980s. At times, these studies helped prove, the rates ranged from barely traceable amounts (0.06) to significant parts per billion…well into the thousands and sometimes tens of thousands PPB, and for the chemical BTX.

In attempting to bring these claims that relied on significantly dated evidence, the trial court and court of appeals had actually entertained the oil companies defense of “repose.” The statute of limitations and the statute of repose basically argued the claims should’ve been brought earlier. The premises liability lawyer successfully argued these incorrect rulings should be reversed. The Supreme Court agreed with the premises liability lawyer…going so far at one time as to describe the oil company’s defense as “worth preserving for its amusing fallacy.”

Conclusions:   

Proving what happened, who was in charge, and even getting accurate expert testimony about chemical exposure: all these called for the work of a premises liability attorney. Additionally, there were many other legal claims associated with the alleged injuries. These separate claims also involved analysis of when a suit could have been brought. This complexity should not stop someone from seeking redress from chemical exposure by a company, neighbor, or business. Instead, it is a reason to seek help as soon as possible, so that an offender or polluter cannot hide behind a calendar.

If you, a family member or a loved one have been hurt in any chemical or hazardous materials exposure, or are worried about hazardous chemical confinement or construction, please contact us.  You will speak with a premises liability attorney/ lawyer who can best answer your questions.  There is never a fee for this initial consultation.

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