BP Not Responsible for Polluted Groundwater

     (CN) – A Kansas judge should not have disregarded a jury verdict to hold BP liable for benzene-contaminated groundwater, the state Supreme Court ruled.
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     Benzene-tainted groundwater was discovered in Neodesha, Kans., in 1990, about 20 years after BP concluded operations at a refinery there and donated the property.
     The plant had been in operation since 1897, generating benzene, arsenic, chromium, lead, mercury and other waste products.
     BP says its subsequent cleanup efforts caused benzene concentrations in monitoring wells to drop, and resulted in the removal of 30,177 gallons of hydrocarbons.
     But Neodesha, its residents and the plant’s new tenant disputed the cleanup’s success in a 2004 class action against the oil giant.
     While the class claimed that that the remediation efforts had caused the groundwater contamination, BP attributed the pollution to refinery operations.
     A jury sided with BP after a 17-week trial, but Wilson District Court Judge Daniel Creitz later granted the class judgment as a matter of law on a strict liability claim that he decided should not have been submitted to the jury.
     With a damages trial on the horizon, BP appealed to the Kansas Supreme Court, which reinstated the jury’s ruling Friday.
     “Tellingly, the district court’s posttrial ruling contains no finding that BP’s remediation and clean-up activities caused any purported harm, cites no evidence to support any such finding, and ignores a critical element for imposing strict liability in tort, i.e., limiting it to the kind of harm that makes the activity abnormally dangerous,” Judge Dan Biles wrote for a unanimous panel.
     Since BP and the class disputed this principle, however, it was a matter for the jury and not the court to determine.
     “The jury was instructed to determine whether BP engaged in an abnormally dangerous activity and the trial court erred by overturning the jury’s finding,” Biles wrote.
     “BP cites testimony from the plaintiffs’ hydrogeologist indicating that the pumps in the trench were working, but they might not have been working at optimum levels,” he added. “He also indicated that a long-term commitment to maintaining the wells was required. Given the allegations as framed and the existence of disputed facts, we hold that the jury’s verdict should not have been disturbed. The trial court erred by overturning the jury’s verdict.”

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