$5.1 Million Verdict Against Waste Management of Alabama for Waste Pollution Trespass

Terrell V. Waste Management of Alabama

Waste Management must pay after jury agrees that runoff polluted neighbors' property. A Mobile Circuit Court jury Thursday said Waste Management of Alabama owes a brother and sister more than $5 million for contaminating their property.

Catherine Whittington and J.D. Terrell Jr. sued the garbage firm last year, saying storm runoff from the Waste Management facility in Theodore had contaminated their adjoining property.

They contended portable toilets and old garbage containers stored at the Waste Management lot on Hamilton Boulevard west of Mobile were the source. Following a four-day trespass trial, the jury awarded the two land owners $5 million in punitive damages and $86,000 in compensatory damages. Waste Management plans to appeal, according to its lawyers.

Terrell, part-owner of an undeveloped 46 acre tract next to Waste Management, said he noticed a problem in March 1992 when he went to fish on a pond on his land. Tests by a private laboratory she hired showed a drainage pipe from the Waste Management facility had fecal contamination more than 11 times the norm for Alabama streams.

Jack Lathbury, manager of the Mobile Waste Management site where garbage trucks are maintained and equipment is stored, said contamination may be coming from his facility, but he doesn't know how. "We have a lot of birds on our property," he said. He said 45 to 50 garbage trucks, trash containers and portable rental toilets are stored on the site, which also is a transfer station where waste collected in Mobile County is sent to a Waste Management landfill in Mississippi.

Lathbury said his company has decided to put a filtration system in the drain pipe emptying onto the property next door.

The judgment was a big one, said David Ludder, chief lawyer with the Legal Environmental Assistance Foundation, a regional group based in Tallahassee, Fla.

"It's pretty high, but I'm not sure I would classify this as an environmental case," Ludder said. "It's strictly a trespass case though it has environmental issues."

He said punitive damages are designed to deter similar acts from taking place, but the Mobile jury award seemed more than necessary to achieve that.

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