Understanding The Innocent Landowner Defense


Environmental contamination is a problem that plagues a variety of properties and can lead to severe lawsuits. However, there is a common contamination lawsuit defense that may help you avoid litigation: the innocent landowner defense. Understanding this defense can help you decide if it applies to you and your case.

What is It?

The innocent landowner defense argues that the defendant who owns the contaminated property was not responsible for the contamination or was unaware of it when they purchased the property. It also argues that the current landowner followed all rules and regulations regarding land contamination. The innocent landowner defense is basically a way of passing the buck to the property's previous owners.

These claims are assessed during a Phase I Environmental Site Assessment, which should pin-point the origin (and the severity) of the contamination. Anyone wishing to use this defense suffers under the "burden of proof." This means that they must prove their innocence, rather than having someone else prove their guilt.

How Do I Meet the Requirements?

Defendants that wish to use the innocent landowner defense must prove that their actions did not directly cause the contamination and that it was caused by another source. These potential sources include:

  • Acts of God, such as an earthquake or thunderstorm
  • Acts of war, such as espionage or direct attack by an enemy
  • Acts of omission, such as lies told by the previous landowner or the behavior of a third-party

Information, such as photos of a third-party dumping contaminants or a copy of the lease that neglects to mention contamination, are crucial pieces of evidence in such a case. This information must prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the landowner was innocent of wrongdoing.

Is it a Successful Defensive Approach?

The success of the innocent landowner defense is often put to severe tests. For example, a Jan. 2015 case in California involved a dry cleaner and the contamination on their property. The dry cleaner sued the owner of a neighboring property, Martin LP/M&M, for contaminating the area's water source with perchloroethlene or PCE.

Initially, the courts ruled in favor of Martin LP due to the innocent landowner defense. However, confusion among material fact, including whether or not Martin LP investigated the matter as fully as they claimed, side-tailed the case.

If you or someone you know is currently under litigation for breaking environmental law, contact an environmental law attorney from a firm like Moore Smith Buxton & Turcke-Chartered immediately. They can help you figure out whether or not you qualify for the innocent landowner defense. If not, they can help you mount a defense that works for your case.


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