You own Neighbors' Heat Treating, Inc. ("Neighbors") just outside of New York City. Your property consists of about 0.8 acres, is zoned industrial, and includes a 9,500 square-foot single-story building. Neighbors is in the business of heat-treating metal objects and ball bearings to harden them for military and industrial uses. In its treatment process, Neighbors uses several large concrete furnaces that leave a sludge residue containing high levels of barium chloride. From time to time, those furnaces needed to be cleaned and/or replaced. As part of that process, Neighbors' took the old furnaces outside the building and washed them down with water, in close proximity to the property next door, which is owned by Fences' Trucking. In addition, from 1979 until 1990, Neighbors' used jackhammers to break up the old furnaces outside the building so that they could be more easily transported off site for disposal. A drain, which empties into a swale, is located on the concrete pad where the furnaces were cleaned and demolished.
In 1986, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation ("NYDEC") designated barium as a hazardous waste. Several years later, the NYDEC began investigating Neighbors' facility. By 1994, Neighbors' property was declared a hazardous waste site and Neighbors' was ordered to remove the barium contamination from the soil and groundwater in the area. After many months and several million dollars of expenditures, your company successfully removed the contamination to the satisfaction of the NYDEC. You assumed that your environmental problems were over, until today.
Today, you were sued by the owner of the property next door for trespassing. You and the property owner next door have never really gotten along. The property owner next door is a retail fencing company called Fences by Fred, Inc. ("Fences"). After a property line dispute, zoning variances, surveyors, and lawyers, Fences erected a display of dozens of different kinds of fences along the property line between your property and Fences' property. Needless to say, with dozens of different kinds of fences on display on the property line, it looks pretty ridiculous. This time, however, you believe the Fences have really "stepped over the line." The Fences sued Neighbors in the United States District Court for the Western District of New York, claiming that Fences' property had been contaminated by Neighbors' waste disposal practices. In particular, the Fences asserted a claim against Neighbors for trespass under New York common law. Since you have already removed the contamination, you fail to see how you could possibly be liable for "trespassing." You decide to contact your company's attorney and fight this form of legalized extortion.
You make an appointment with your attorney, explain the facts, including the part where you had to pay millions of dollars to clean up the contamination on the Fences' property, and then you ask your attorney if you will have to pay the Fences' for trespassing. Your attorney sighs and simply states, "Yes."
Under New York law, trespass is the intentional invasion of another's property. See Ivancic v. Olmstead, 66 N.Y.2d 349, 352 (1985), cert. denied, 476 U.S. 1117 (1986); Phillips v. Sun Oil Co., 307 N.Y. 328, 331 (1954); see also New York State Nat'l Org. for Women v. Terry, 886 F.2d 1339, 1361 (2d Cir. 1989), cert. denied, 495 U.S. 947 (1990). To be liable, the trespasser "need not intend or expect the damaging consequences of his intrusion[;]" rather, he need only "intend the act which amounts to or produces the unlawful invasion." Phillips, 307 N.Y. at 331; see New York State Nat'l Org. for Women, 886 F.2d at 1361. The intrusion itself "must at least be the immediate or inevitable consequence of what [the trespasser] willfully does, or which he does so negligently as to amount to willfulness." Phillips, 307 N.Y. at 331; see also Ivancic, 66 N.Y.2d at 352.
Your attorney explains that there is a body of law on trespass claims arising from the movement of noxious liquids from one property to another. The New York Court of Appeals has held that:
even when the polluting material has been deliberately put onto, or into, defendant's land, he is not liable for his Neighbors' damage therefrom, unless he (defendant) had good reason to know or expect that subterranean and other conditions were such that there would be passage from defendant's to plaintiff's land.
Phillips, 307 N.Y. at 331.
You ask your attorney if it matters that your company never intended for the water used in the cleaning process to enter Fences' land. In fact, there is no proof that anyone ever observed water running off of your property onto Fences' property. You explain to your attorney that even if water that had been contaminated by Neighbors' seeped into the soil on your property and thereafter migrated through the soil onto Fences' property, there is no proof that Neighbors' intended that to occur or that Neighbors' acts were so reckless that they should be charged with trespass. Your attorney explains that, unfortunately for you, in determining whether Neighbors' had the requisite intent for trespass under New York law, the issue is not whether Neighbors intended the contaminated water used in its cleaning process to enter plaintiffs' land. Rather, under Phillips, the appropriate standard is whether Neighbors': (i) "intend[ed] the act which amounts to or produces the unlawful invasion," and (ii) "had good reason to know or expect that subterranean and other conditions were such that there would be passage [of the contaminated water] from defendant's to plaintiff's land." Phillips, 307 N.Y. at 331 (emphasis added).
When this standard is applied, your attorney explains that Neighbors' is liable to the Fences in trespass. Your attorney explains that this is the likely conclusion that the court would reach since, in 1986, the NYDEC listed barium as a hazardous waste. Nonetheless, from 1986 until 1990, Neighbors' continued to take its barium-tainted furnaces outside its building and demolish them on site using jackhammers. Moreover, it was Neighbors' practice to wash the furnaces down with water on site in close proximity to the Fences' property. Your attorney explains that Neighbors' would have to concede in court that in the process of removing and breaking up the worn out furnaces, small amounts of barium salts escaped onto the pavement. These barium particles were carried by moving water into a swale on Neighbors' land, but near the boundary with plaintiffs. Your attorney explains that one conclusion is inescapable: the barium in the Fences' soil and groundwater came from the Neighbors' site.
Under Phillips, your attorney explains that the court is likely to conclude that Neighbors' intended the acts which caused the invasion of the Fences' property, and, on these facts, the court is likely to conclude that Neighbors' "had good reason to know or expect," see Phillips, 307 N.Y. at 331, that barium particles would pass from the pavement where the furnaces were washed and demolished, into the swale, and onto to the Fences' property.
You are thoroughly frustrated. Even after spending millions of dollars to eliminate the contamination on Fences' property, you are still being sued for "trespass." You tell your attorney to negotiate a "reasonable" settlement and to get your company out of this mess. Your attorney agrees.
You ask your attorney if he remembers how Robert Frost counseled that "good fences make good neighbors" in "Mending Wall," from The Poetry of Robert Frost 33-34 (Edward Latham ed., 1969). You look at your attorney and advise him that if Robert Frost had been familiar with your lawsuit, Robert Frost might have stated, "some Fences make poor Neighbors."