JACKSON, Miss. (Legal Newsline) -- The Mississippi Court of Appeals, in a ruling this week, said it is leaving a case over an alleged alligator infestation up to a lower court.

In December 2003, plaintiffs Consandra and Tom Christmas purchased about 35 acres of land in rural Wilkinson County, between the towns of Centreville and Woodville.

Adjacent to the Christmases' property is the Centreville Landfarm, a refinery waste disposal site owned and maintained by defendant ExxonMobil Corp.

According to court documents, the Christmases were unaware of the nature of the site next-door when they purchased their property.

The Centreville Landfarm was originally operated by Rogers Rental and Landfill Company Inc. The property has 19 rainwater retention ponds, totaling about 85 surface acres of water. Alligators were allegedly introduced to the site as "canaries" to warn of hazardous contamination in the retention ponds.

Exxon has owned the facility since July 2001, but it had a close relationship with Rogers that went back to at least 1980.

At some point in the 1990s, Rogers stopped accepting new refinery waste, and the facility has since been maintained as a former waste disposal site.

In August 2008, the Christmases sued Exxon, alleging their property had been contaminated with runoff from the landfarm and that the Exxon property was infested with alligators.

The Wilkinson County Circuit Court granted summary judgment to Exxon, and the Christmases appealed.

The issue on appeal was whether the plaintiffs' claim for damages is barred by the statute of limitations.

The appeals court, in its opinion Tuesday, reversed the lower court's ruling.

"The summary judgment requested by Exxon was limited to the issues of the statute of limitations and the prior trespass doctrine. For the purpose of these issues, we must assume the alleged alligator infestation is actionable as a permanent injury to the Christmases' land," Judge Eugene Love Fair Jr. wrote for the appeals court.

"Although it is clear the infestation first arose outside the statute of limitations, we conclude there is a genuine issue of material fact as to when it reasonably should have been discovered.

"We therefore reverse the trial court's grant of summary judgment on the infestation claim, and remand the case for further proceedings."

A spokesman for Exxon told The Associated Press Thursday that the company will ask the appeals court to reconsider its ruling.

"Whether ExxonMobil appeals to the (Mississippi) Supreme Court depends on the outcome of the motion for rehearing," spokesman Todd Spitler said in a statement to the AP.

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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