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Transport company’s appeal of $490K oil spill award turned back by Maine Supreme Court

State Supreme Court

By John Sammon | Jul 25, 2018

PORTLAND, Maine (Legal Newsline) – The Maine Supreme Judicial Court on July 12 denied the appeal of a trucking company, affirming an earlier trial court judgment of $490,000 in favor of a Maine couple for an oil spill that degraded their property.

On June 11, 2014, an oil tanker owned by Jewett & Noonan Transportation Inc., a trucking company located in Gorham, Maine, overturned in a traffic circle in that city, spilling more than 9,000 gallons of oil and kerosene. The oil spilling from the tanker entered a culvert and flowed onto property owned by Kathleen and Erick West.

The Maine Supreme Court found that the spill adversely affected the couple’s property to a degree they did not have to show depreciation in market value and that interest in developing the property disappeared after the spill.

“The trial court did not err when it denied Jewett’s motion for judgment as a matter of law on the nuisance claim,” the court opinion read.

In addition, the Supreme Court found the defendant had failed to prove an allegation that evidence presented at the jury trial regarding the company’s insurer had prejudiced the proceeding.

The Wests had acquired the property consisting of 12 acres of land and a house in 2011 and intended to subdivide and develop the property. Erik West had begun the process of dealing with Gorham city officials and real estate developers on the project, however after the spill and resulting soil pollution, the real estate developers backed away from the project, the opinion states.

The Maine Department of Environmental Protection initiated cleanup efforts and by the summer of 2014, 7,800 gallons of oil had been recaptured off the property but soil contamination was still in excess of department standards.

The Wests communicated to Jewett they wanted the remediation of the remaining oil through excavation. Officials at the company thought natural attenuation the most cost-effective way to clean up the remaining oil and that excavation was not necessary. The court opinion said the trucking company did not communicate this preferred plan (attenuation) to the Wests at the time.

According to the court opinion, Jewett officials allegedly sought extensions for deadlines to excavate set by the Environmental Protection Department and continued to request soil test sampling at the site. Sampling in 2015 showed lower contamination levels.    

On Dec. 7, 2015, the Wests filed suit claiming trespass, negligence, nuisance and liability, requesting compensation and punitive damages. The Cumberland County Superior court granted a motion by Jewett for summary judgment on the liability and trespass but denied summary judgment on the other claims.

In August 2017, a jury awarded the Wests compensation damages on the nuisance verdict of $490,000, the amount a civil engineer appearing as a witness for the couple told the court would be necessary to restore the property.

Jewett filed a motion for judgment as a matter of law challenging the nuisance verdict and moved for a new trial. The court denied the motions and Jewett appealed.

The high court affirmed the trial court judgment.  

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