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January 13, 2014

Analysis: Alligator suit before Miss. high court

JACKSON, Miss. — JACK ELLIOTT JR., Associated Press

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — State wildlife officials want the Mississippi Supreme Court to throw out a dispute between a Wilkinson County couple and ExxonMobil Corp. over an alleged alligator infestation.

In a friend-of-the-court brief, the wildlife agency argues "because wild alligators are the property of the state, and not subject to private ownership, private landowners have no duty to prevent them from causing damage to the land of neighboring property owners."

Tom and Cassandra Christmas disagree. They will present their case to the Supreme Court in oral arguments scheduled for Feb. 4 in Jackson.

The case began after the Christmases bought 35 acres between Centreville and Woodville in December 2003. Next door to their property was a refinery waste disposal site owned and maintained by ExxonMobil — a site that's home to dozens of alligators.

The Christmases say they didn't know what was across the fence until they cleared the property and moved there in 2007.

The couple sued the oil company in August 2008, seeking damages for permanent depreciation of their land. A judge threw out the lawsuit in 2011.

Exxon appealed a state Court of Appeals ruling in May that returned the case to Wilkinson County Circuit Court.

The Christmases argue that jurors should determine whether the alligators are a nuisance.

The Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks says between 32,000 and 38,000 wild alligators live in Mississippi, with about 408,000 acres of habitat.

In its brief, the department argues that the Legislature gave it domain over wild alligators and, contrary to what the Christmases say, wild alligators living in their natural habitat do not constitute a nuisance that should be abated.

"Rather, the wild alligator is a protected species that needs to be managed and regulated by the department, not private landowners," the MDWFP said in court documents.

The agency said allowing such broad private nuisance suits such as the Christmases' creates a separation-of-powers issue.

"Private nuisance suits are incompatible with the department's exclusive authority to determine whether a wild alligator constitutes a nuisance and to take the appropriate action when it makes such a finding. Allowing such suits to proceed would result in a transfer the department's regulatory authority over 'nuisance' alligators to the courts, which lack the expertise to make these types of decisions," the agency said.

A company had shipped refinery waste from Louisiana to the Wilkinson County disposal site beginning in 1980. The site stopped taking waste in the 1990s. Exxon bought the property in July 2001.

Alligators were allegedly introduced to the site from Louisiana as early as 1984 as "canaries" to warn of hazardous contamination in the retention ponds. Exactly who put the reptiles there is a matter of dispute.

ExxonMobil argues the Christmases' real estate agent told the couple about the alligators as far back as 2003. Exxon says the couple waited too long to file a lawsuit claiming the gators robbed them of enjoyment of their land, and the three-year statute of limitations has passed.

Court records say state wildlife officials conducted an alligator census of the property in 2007 and counted about 84 alligators but officials said not all may have been counted.

The Christmases said they had occasionally seen alligators after they bought the land, according to the court records. The couple said they first learned where the alligators were coming from in 2007, when Tom Christmas was allowed on the ExxonMobil property to search for a lost hunting dog.


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