- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 4, 2014

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Tom and Consandra Christmas knew when they bought a piece of property in southwest Mississippi, they would have reptilian visitors occasionally. Alligators are endemic to the region of vast swamplands and marshy wilderness. But they weren’t expecting 80 of them.

The Christmases‘ attorney, Wayne Dowdy, told the Mississippi Supreme Court on Tuesday that the couple has abandoned plans to build a house on the land in Wilkinson County because of the gators, which they say were introduced by ExxonMobil to the property the company owns next door.

They allege the company brought the reptiles in from Louisiana as “canaries” that would warn of hazardous contamination on the neighboring property, which ExxonMobil bought in 2001 after it was operated for years as a disposal site for refinery waste.

Since ExxonMobil owns the land next door and was responsible for bringing the alligators to the site, the company should be required to compensate the Christmases, Dowdy argued.

“They have lost the use and enjoyment of their property,” he said.

ExxonMobil denies introducing the Louisiana alligators to the site next door or knowing why they were brought there. Company attorney Jeff Reynolds told the court that in any case, the Christmases should have raised their concerns when they first bought the 35 acres between Centreville and Woodville in December 2003. Reynolds said the three-year statute of limitations to file any lawsuits related to alleged damages began running on 2003 when the Christmases were told about the alligators.

“They are not saying the alligators are making loud noises or smell bad. They say the alligators are coming on their property,” Reynolds said.

Dowdy argued the three years began running only when the couple moved into a mobile home on the land in 2007 and learned of the large number of alligators on the ExxonMobil property.

The land purchased by the Christmases had previously been used for hunting and timber and was not occupied when they bought it. Court records do not show from whom they bought the land, but it was not owned by ExxonMobil.

The property next door that ExxonMobil bought in 2001 was originally operated by Rogers Rental and Landfill Company Inc. The property has 19 rainwater retention ponds, totaling about 85 surface acres of water. ExxonMobil had a close relationship with Rogers that stretched back to at least 1980, according to court records. At some point in the 1990s, Rogers stopped accepting new refinery waste, and the facility has since been maintained as a former waste disposal site by ExxonMobil.

The Christmases argue the alligator infestation of the ExxonMobil property is a non-abatable nuisance that has caused a permanent injury to their property. They are seeking unspecified monetary damages for permanent depreciation of their land.

The Christmases sued Exxon in August 2008. Wilkinson County Circuit Judge Lillie Sanders threw out the lawsuit in 2011.

ExxonMobil is appealing a state Court of Appeals ruling in May that returned the case to Wilkinson County for trial.

The company argues its hands are tied when it comes to the alligators because they are protected and regulated by the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks.

In a brief, the department of wildlife said that under state law, it is the only agency that can decide whether an alligator is a nuisance and only its officers can take steps to move or otherwise deal with them.

ExxonMobil said it cannot be held liable for legally protected wild alligators that allegedly roamed from their property onto the Christmases‘ adjoining property.

In court documents, the wildlife department said in 2007 it was called upon to address the alleged “infestation” of wild alligators. The department said it counted about 84 alligators on the ExxonMobil land. Wildlife department officials said not all may have been counted.

At ExxonMobil’s request, the wildlife department said it removed seven adult, breeding female alligators from the property in July 2008.

Wildlife department attorneys said the Christmases were not satisfied with what wildlife officers did and sued ExxonMobil.

Dowdy said the determination of whether the alligators are a nuisance is an issue for a jury.

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