Appeals Court wants county judge to sort out alligator dispute

WILKINSON COUNTY — Tom Christmas and his wife argue that 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.

Exxon Mobil Corporation 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.

Yesterday, the state Court of Appeals ordered a Wilkinson County judge to sort the whole thing out.

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, Exxon 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 Exxon. 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.

Court documents show the property had 19 rainwater retention ponds, totaling about 85 surface acres of water. 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 admitted that 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 Exxon property to search for a lost hunting dog.

Appeals Judge Eugene Fair, writing for the court, said the statute of limitations does not reset itself every time land is sold.

Fair also said a landowner cannot be put on notice about an alligator infestation by an occasional sighting.

“Although it is clear the infestation first arose outside the statute of limitations, we conclude there is a genuine issue of material fact as to when it reasonably should have been discovered,” Fair said.

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