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Falling Barrels, Manganese, and A Rule Ignored All Too Often

pic.jpgRecently, the Northern District of Ohio has been the scene of the latest segment in a drawn-out and well-publicized corporate liability saga. Michael Abrams and his fellow plaintiffs live in close proximity to a welding plant operated by Nucor Steel Marion, and allege that manganese from the plant has landed on their property. They further claim that this phenomenon has devalued their homes and potentially jeopardized their health, and are suing for trespass and private nuisance.

This and other similar cases against the welding industry have been plagued by rumors and allegations of bribery, champerty, and other forms of corruption on the part of plaintiffs or their counsel -- under-the-table behaviors which landed one renowned trial lawyer in prison for six years and thrust the issues into the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. But though the plaintiffs' misconduct might distract from the defendant's chemicals, it doesn't change the fact that corporations are not legally allowed to strew hazardous materials all over their neighbors' yards.

Sadly, the facts of this case are not unusual. The only newsworthy thing about it is that Nucor has somehow managed, despite established case law providing for its incontestable liability, to convince the District that the facts are even at issue.

This tradition of general responsibility to the public began in 1863, with the British decision in Byrne v. Boadle, 159 Eng. Rep. 299 (Exch. 1863). In that case, Byrne was walking down the street when a barrel of flour fell from the second-story window of a shop and struck him. At trial, the shop's proprietor, Boadle, argued that there was no proof a negligent act of his employees caused the barrel to fall out the window and therefore no sufficient evidence existed for Byrne to recover against him. This notion was rejected: as the court put it, "res ipsa loquitur, " or "the facts speak for themselves." (The irony of coining a Latin phrase to say that was obviously lost on the solemn, bewigged judges of the day). This was subsequently established in American law, and has since been instrumental in holding companies from Buick to Coca-Cola to some standard of care.

Fifteen-letter, dead-language, respectable words for "duh" aside, there is also the older and more specific doctrine that a party is absolutely liable for injury he even indirectly causes his neighbors. Since Roman times, the escape of wild animals (such as lions or bears) was held to be the fault of the creature's owner; this was extended to dams and retention ponds in the landmark 1868 case of Rylands v. Fletcher, and applied to other unorthodox forms of trespass over the first half of the twentieth century. It is hard to believe that rules this basic and well-known would fail to cover the spreading of deleterious metals into the lawns, water, and air of ordinary neighborhoods.

Yet, in the twenty-first century, Abrams v. Nucor Steel Marion remains an unexceptional, undecided case.


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