WILKINSON COUNTY — The Mississippi Supreme Court is refereeing a dispute between a Wilkinson County couple and ExxonMobil Corporation over an alleged alligator infestation, with justices scheduled to hear oral arguments Tuesday.
The dispute involves more than 80 alligators that Tom Christmas and his wife argue they didn’t discover on land next to their homestead until four years after they bought the property in southwest Mississippi.
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.
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 said the Christmases’ real estate agent told the couple about the alligators as far back as 2003. ExxonMobil said that the Christmases waited too long to file a lawsuit saying the alligators robbed them of enjoyment of their land and that the statute of limitations has passed.
ExxonMobil appealed a state Court of Appeals ruling in May that returned the case to Wilkinson County for trial.
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.
ExxonMobil attorneys said the Christmases should have investigated the alligator issue when they first saw one in 2003.
ExxonMobil 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 MDWFP said that under state law only it 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.
MDWFP said it removed about seven alligators from the ExxonMobil property in 2008 after being asked to do so by the company at the urging of the Christmases. MDWFP attorneys said the Christmases were not satisfied with what wildlife officers did and sued ExxonMobil.
Attorneys representing the Christmases argue that determining whether the alligators are a nuisance is an issue for a jury. They said the Christmases discovered the alligators when they moved to the property in 2007 and Tom Christmas was allowed on the ExxonMobil property to search for a lost hunting dog.