By Joe Carroll and Jim Polson, Bloomberg News
Exxon Mobil Corp. isn’t responsible for alligators overrunning a rural dump site it owns in Mississippi, the state supreme court ruled, because the global oil explorer can’t control wild animals.
The family that felt menaced by the scaly reptiles infesting a plot next door to their 35-acre property couldn’t prove where the gators originated, Justice Ann Lamar wrote for the majority in the court’s 5-4 decision Thursday.
The family had alleged the alligators were brought to the site from Louisiana by a previous owner who later sold the land to Exxon, according to the court document.
The Mississippi Supreme Court threw out the family’s 2008 lawsuit, citing a 1950 ruling that no one can be held responsible for animals “in a state of nature.”
The court ruled the alligators — which numbered 84 when the state’s wildlife agency counted them in 2007 — were wild animals and, as such, not under Exxon’s control. Even if Exxon had wanted to cull the congregation, it would have been prevented by state law that designates alligators as a protected species, making it illegal to hunt or disturb them, according to the ruling.
The decision reinstates a lower-court ruling in Exxon’s favor that had been reversed on appeal.
The state supreme court didn’t say what sort of waste was disposed of at the dump. Exxon was the sole customer of the site from 1984 to 2001, when the Irving, Texas-based company purchased it from Rogers Rental & Landfill Company, according to the court document.
Tom and Consandra Christmas bought the adjacent tract in 2003, even after their real estate agent warned them his horse had been injured in a suspected alligator encounter, the court said in yesterday’s decision. The couple said they didn’t realize the Exxon land was crawling with gators until 2007, when Tom Christmas went to retrieve a dog that had wandered onto the site.
Christmas testified that he lost two calves and one dog and suspected that alligators were responsible, according to the opinion. He said he was afraid to fish in the ponds due to the alligators. The couple asked for monetary damages.
Four justices dissented from the ruling, citing testimony that Exxon assigned staff to feed the 6- to-10 foot reptiles.
Dick Keil, an Exxon spokesman, said the company hadn’t yet had an opportunity to peruse the ruling and declined to comment.
The case is Christmas v. Exxon Mobil, 2011-CT-01311-SCT, Supreme Court of Mississippi.