JACKSON — The Mississippi Supreme Court has agreed to referee a dispute between a Wilkinson County couple and ExxonMobil Corporation over an alleged alligator infestation.
Tom Christmas and his wife argue they didn’t discover the 84-plus alligators on land next to their homestead until four years after they bought the property in southwest Mississippi.
ExxonMobil counters that the Christmases’ real estate agent told them 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 statute of limitations has passed.
Exxon appealed a state Court of Appeals ruling in May that returned the case to Wilkinson County Circuit Court. The Supreme Court agreed 5-4 to hear the case.
The Christmases sued Exxon in August 2008, seeking damages for permanent depreciation of their land. Circuit Judge Lillie Sanders threw out the lawsuit in 2011.
In oral arguments before the Appeals Court in February, ExxonMobil attorney Jeff Reynolds told the court that the Christmases should have investigated the alligator issue when they first saw one in 2003.
“I don’t think the law is they get to sit around until they know how many alligators there are. Once you see alligators you’ve got to start looking into it,” Reynolds said.
Attorney Wayne Dowdy, representing the Christmases, told the court that determining whether the alligators were a nuisance was an issue for a jury.
He said the Christmases “did not know what was across the fence until they cleared the property and moved out there in 2007.”
The Christmases bought 35 acres between Centreville and Woodville in December 2003. Next door to the Christmases’ property was a refinery waste disposal site owned and maintained by ExxonMobil. The company had shipped refinery waste to the site from Louisiana beginning in 1980. The site stopped taking waste in the 1990s. Exxon bought the property in July 2001.
The Christmases said they were unaware of the nature of the site next door when they purchased their property.
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.
Court records say state wildlife officials conducted an alligator census of its 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 did not learn where the alligators were coming from until 2007, when Tom Christmas was allowed on the ExxonMobil property to search for a lost hunting dog.