(CN) - The owner of an abandoned auto shop must cover cleanup costs after a transient occupying the property caused an oil spill, a federal judge ruled.
The property in question, located in Banning, Calif., had been exclusively used for automotive business purposes until 2009 when the last tenant, DJ's Smog Shop and Automotive, vacated the premises. The owner, Douglas James, left multiple 55-gallon drums containing waste and motor oil on the property.
After a transient, Steven Ryan, dumped the drums on July 25, 2011, the city of Banning responded and then filed suit against several defendants, including property owner Mary Ann Dureau, seeking $592,665 for the cleanup costs.
U.S. District Judge Beverly Reid O'Connell had to wade through conflicting testimony of those involved in the suit to determine liability. She found that Jacqueline Branom, a transient living at the property, was a credible witness.
Branom, who was a former employee of the smog shop, had said Dureau gave her permission to stay on the property as long as she kept the place clean. Branom testified that James had left barrels on the property. On the day of the spill, she saw two people breaking windows and knocking the barrels over, with the oil spilling out of the barrels.
Dureau, on the other hand, claimed that she never gave Branom permission to stay at the property and that she had two to three rusty reddish metal drums removed from the property a week after the auto business moved out. Dureau admitted that the city of Banning had sent her repeated warning letters regarding problems at the property.
Dureau said that she was last on the property two months before the oil spill, at which time she cleaned up all of the property's defects, fixed its broken locks, posted a "No Trespassing" sign, and complained to police about people using the building and stealing from it.
Theresa Bluel, the person Dureau hired to clean up the property, testified that she never saw barrels on the property except two empty red barrels that were removed after the auto shop vacated the premises. She claimed to have visited the property every 30 to 60 days, during which time she found evidence of homeless people on the property, but never saw any oil drums.
Judge O'Connell would not credit the testimony of either Dureau and Branom, who were friends and contradicted physical evidence produced during trial.
Both women maintained "that there were no barrels on the property after James' departure, yet immediately after the oil spill, photographs depict five barrels on the property," the ruling states. "It is not reasonable to believe that Ryan or anyone else carried five 55-gallon drums, weighing 500 pounds each, onto the property only to spill them."
Dureau also tried to argue that she was not the actual owner of the property and had transferred title of the property to DBBF Enterprises, also named as a defendant, prior to the spill, but had not transferred title until roughly a week after the spill, which was the day after she interviewed with a sheriff regarding the spill.
"The court finds that a sophisticated businesswoman and real estate broker would have ensured that the title to the property passed well before the August 2011 date," O'Connell wrote.
Accordingly, O'Connell found that Dureau was the owner and operator of the property on the day of the spill, as she had not yet transferred the title to DBBF. Dureau, therefore, is liable for the spill under the Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act of 1980, according to the ruling.
O'Connell found that Dureau "permitted the oil drums to remain on vacant, inadequately secured, property for a lengthy period of time. She also did not seek permits to store such waste, nor require such permits from her tenants. She was largely an absentee landlord who knew of the problems on the property based on repeated notice from Banning. It was reasonably foreseeable that an inadequately secured property would invite transients to occupy it, and that transients may cause the waste materials in the drums thereon to be spilled with the waste material flowing into the storm drain."
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