By Lou Grossman
The Subsequent Purchaser Doctrine is a judicially created limitation on the rights of a current landowner to sue for pre-acquisition damages. For over 160 years, Louisiana courts have held that a current landowner has no right of action to sue for damages to his/her property occurring prior to the date of sale in the absence of an express assignment of that right. In environmental contamination disputes, appellate courts were divided on whether the doctrine should apply to cases involving non-apparent or subsurface property damage.
In a recent 4/3 decision, a majority of the Justices of the Louisiana Supreme Court rejected the notion that property damage must be overt, and held that a landowner has no right to sue for non-apparent damages to land inflicted before the act of sale in the absence of an express assignment of, or subrogation to, that right. Eagle Pipe and Supply, Inc. v. Amerada Hess Corporation, 2010-2267 (La. 10/25/2011) –So.3d –. In reaching this decision, the majority acknowledged 160 years of jurisprudence constante regarding the subsequent purchaser rule and found that the rationale should also extend to the situation where damage to the property is not apparent.
In reaching this decision, the Louisiana Supreme Court also rejected various theories advanced by Eagle Pipe, most notably of which was Eagle Pipe’s continuing tort theory. According to the Court, the presence of alleged contamination on Eagle Pipe’s property was not caused by “overt, persistent and ongoing acts,” but was simply a continuing ill effect from the original tortious acts. As such, it was not a continuing tort and could not give rise to a separate tort claim under that theory.
This decision resolves any dispute among the appellate courts and explicitly limits the rights of current landowners to bring suit for environmental harm inflicted prior to the date they acquired the property, regardless of whether the purchaser could have known of the contamination. Such landowners may still seek claims against prior owners and are further permitted to seek environmental remediation, but private actions and damages have been severely abrogated by the Court’s ruling. Moreover, in rejecting the continuing tort theory, the Court refused to allow private claims for environmental harm to exist in perpetuity, providing greater certainty to industry with respect to tort liabilities.
Notably, the Court’s decision created a sharp divide among the justices which continues to persist. Justice Clark, who authored the majority opinion, and Justice Weimer, who authored the dissent have both provided additional written opinions, days after the original opinion was released. As this dispute continues, it is important to recognize a number of similar cases currently pending before the Court, including two arising from oil and gas exploration and production activities performed pursuant to mineral leases. The Court will continue to face such sharp divisions in ruling on these matters and the issue is far from final resolution.