Dozens of personal injury claims filed by former residents of a Los Angeles County public housing complex against ExxonMobil Corp. may go to trial, a California appeals court ruled Sept. 24, reversing a decision of a trial court that found the cases had expired on statute of limitations.
Fifty-eight occupants of the Ujima Village Apartments complex who sued ExxonMobil in 2010 after discovering contamination of the land and groundwater at the housing site posed serious health risks argued that those risks weren’t disclosed in 2007, the year county authorities held community meetings to announce future housing options in the event the community needed to be shut down due to pollution concerns.
The plaintiffs were part of a larger group whose cases were dismissed after a judge found that although authorities suggested to Ujima residents that the contamination wasn’t harmful, there was still sufficient cause to suspect that there was need for concern. Fifty-eight of the plaintiffs appealed that ruling.
The appellate court agreed with the former residents and found that as a matter of law, authorities did not give them sufficient information to spark concern that the ExxonMobil contamination posed a health risk or even warranted further investigation. As such, the court determined that the plaintiffs filed their 2010 lawsuit before the two-year statute of limitations clock ran out.
“The 2007 notices did not inform appellants that exposure to the contamination might be harmful to their health; indeed, the notices contained additional information suggesting just the opposite,” the court said. “Had appellants been notified in 2007 that the contamination could potentially pose a risk to their health, or that authorities were still investigating that possibility, this case would present a closer question.”
One legal expert familiar with the case said that it should serve as “a warning to public agencies who give notices to citizens and then try to use those notices against them later on.”
According to Law 360, in deciding the case, the appellate court “stressed that the Los Angeles County Housing Authority‘s advice to residents to stay in their homes and pay their monthly rent or else risk losing relocation assistance suggested that a reasonable person in that position would not have suspected that his or her health was threatened.”
“Neither did authorities explicitly outline the nature of the suspected contamination, according to the opinion,” Law 360 reported.
The plaintiffs in the case claim that their pollution-related injuries became apparent in 2009. ExxonMobil’s contamination of the Ujima Village site, they allege, caused cancer, neurological disorders, miscarriage, and at least 38 deaths.