SC Supreme Court ruling could limit damages in landfill suit

08/14/2013 8:03 PM

08/14/2013 8:08 PM

A ruling handed down Wednesday by the South Carolina Supreme Court could impact a $2.3 million order of damages awarded by a federal jury in March 2012 against the Lee County Landfill on behalf of six Bishopville area residents.

U.S. District Judge Joseph Anderson, who is hearing the appeal filed by Republic Services, the owner of the landfill, asked the court to resolve several issues of law relevant in the case.

In response to the federal judge's request, the state Supreme Court found that “while a negligence claim based on offensive odors is possible, such a claim would have to satisfy all the elements of negligence like any other negligence claim.”

The court also indicated that damages recoverable for a trespass or nuisance claim are limited to the lost rental value of the property. The court also clarified the definition of trespass, stating that a “trespass exists only when an intrusion is made by a physical, tangible invasion.”

Citing the ongoing litigation, Jamey Amick, president of Republic Services S.C., declined to comment on the Supreme Court findings.

In March 2012, a federal jury ruled in favor of six Bishopville area residents against the landfill for causing a stench they say has made life miserable for them. The verdict followed two weeks of testimony and two days of jury deliberations. The 10-member jury, comprising six women and four men not from Lee County, awarded the residents $532,500 in actual damages and $1.8 million in punitive damages.

The latter award is based on the jury’s finding that the landfill’s operators were reckless and willful in allowing odors to escape the site, which attorneys for the plaintiffs argued made the landfill responsible for damages.

The jury award against a division of waste giant Republic Services is rare because it requires a company to pay damages based on nuisance landfill odors that affect people’s enjoyment of their property, attorneys for the residents said.

At the time of the initial verdict, Gary Poliakoff and Bill Hopkins, lawyers for the Lee County residents, called the decision historic and a victory for citizens who suffer damages from landfill companies.

Calls to Poliakoff and Hopkins were not returned on Wednesday.

The landfill’s attorneys are asking Anderson to throw out the award.

Republic Services is a Fortune 500 company worth more than $1 billion. Headquartered in Arizona, Republic has about 200 landfills nationally. Lee County Landfill SC LLC, an arm of Republic, has a net worth of $15.78 million, the judge was told Friday.

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