Environmental Contamination From Adjacent landowner


Claim at Issue:

This matter involved the recovery of environmental remediation costs in the amount of $300,000.00 that the railroad incurred when a fire at a business adjacent to the railroad's right of way released chemicals that migrated onto the railroad's property.

Key Legal or Factual Issues: 

  • Whether the environmental remediation costs the railroad incurred were reasonable under industry standards and the circumstances of this particular case.
  • The defendant company was a long-time family owned business, which was destroyed as a result of the fire. While the owner received insurance proceeds and re-opened the business, this fact was inadmissible and there was a serious danger of a sympathetic defendant who could be perceived as a victim challenging what were costly and robust remediation protocols implemented by the railroad.

Case Summary: 

The defendant operated an oil and lubricant manufacturing and packaging facility. A fire, the source of which was unknown, destroyed the facility and released chemicals onto the railroad's neighboring property requiring emergency and long-term environmental remediation and monitoring.

Various environmental agencies were involved and offered to handle the remediation. However, the railroad was concerned about operations and wanted its own trusted vendors to handle the remediation, which cost significantly more than the estimate provided by the environmental agencies. After the site was remediated, the defendant adamantly refused to pay the costs claiming they were grossly excessive. A demand was made for reimbursement of the cleanup costs and an unacceptably low offer was made. We filed suit in the United States District Court for the Western District of New York. The matter proceeded to a jury trial where we obtained a successful verdict for the railroad in excess of $351,000. The total recovery exceeded the remediation costs that the railroad incurred as a result of our motion to modify the verdict to include pre-judgment interest.

Even though the cause of the fire could not be determined, we were able to persuade the defendant to stipulate to liability on the basis that the facility should have had sprinklers to stop the fire, but did not. The remaining litigation focused on the reasonableness of the damages at issue. In order to respond to challenges to the cost of the remediation, we engaged an expert in the area of emergency environmental response. He opined on the quality of the work performed on behalf of the railroad, the dangers of not performing the remediation and why the costs - though high - were necessarily incurred. The defendant also engaged a similar expert who conceded many of the defendant's arguments under vigorous cross-examination in front of the jury.

In order to combat the dangers of a sympathetic litigant, we presented witnesses who testified to watching the business owner verbally berate environmental responders and fire fighters who were responding to the fire. The business owner was later put on the stand to rehabilitate his image. However, we were prepared and pressed the owner on cross-examination revealing his fiery temper validating the testimony of the earlier witnesses. And it did not hurt that we knew there was a former fire fighter on the jury who approached us after the trial to offer his congratulations.