Monday, August 13, 2007

Enviro, Muni and Liability

Today's P-J features a story on the Dahlstrom building, which may or may not be set to drop into the Chadakoin River. One's perspective on the situation is inevitably tied to the potential impact on the pocketbook. The building's owner says help from the state and city is needed to bring it down. The city could demolish the property as a hazard, but there's no guarantee of ever getting any money back from the owner.

This situation reminds the Jamestown Lawyer of a couple pieces of environmental law. Superfund, at the state and federal level, and New York's Oil Spill Law, in the Navigation Law both come to mind for the concept of "strict liability." Strict liability, by way of my own definition, is when the statute establishes that an involved party is liable for the costs of cleanup regardless of the involvement. Under the Oil Spill Law, for example, if you buy property and later find out it was a gas station and the soil all needs to be dug up and trucked out, you as the owner are liable for either doing it or reimbursing the DEC. The statute does allow the liable party to sue other parties who are responsible for the action, but not to shift liability (except in certain narrow cases.)

It seems a situation that could lead to unfair results, unless we remember "caveat emptor." The reason, though, is that it avoids finger pointing and blame shifting and all the like that prevents someone from undertaking the cleanup. All of that may follow in eventual civil actions between various potentially responsible parties, but by putting one person on the hook from the start, there's increased likelihood some costs will be recovered. This is important under Superfund and Oil Spill laws since every piece recovered helps fund the cleanup of additional impacted sites.

Statutory mechanisms already exist for a muni to take down a building and hold someone responsible. The more complicated situation is one like this, where it isn't an immediate danger and repair/upkeep could solve the problem. Perhaps code violations in an attempt to make the owner fix would be an answer, but it seems much less efficient than the mechanics of environmental law.


Anonymous Dee said...

Environmental law is quite fascinating, but complicated to those not trained in it, and I think we are lucky to have the Jamestown Lawyer explain it to us in such understandable terms.

Question: say this building (or another building) falls in the river and there is a flood which goes into another building, comprimisng the building or perhaps making contaminants flow out of building into river. Who would be responsible in that type of sceneraio? Would it still be the owner of the flooded building?

10:35 AM  
Blogger TM said...

That's like a law school exam question. I'm having flashbacks.

Short answer is that such a situation is such a mess that it would probably fall into one of those exceptions in the law.

6:03 AM  
Anonymous Dee said...

Oh, sorry about the flashbacks! Bad, Dee, Bad!

However, this whole issue is very interesting. I'm thinking, and hoping, it is all speculation though because buildings built in earlier days do seem to tend to take a lot of abuse and still stand.

Now, I will will worry all weekend about giving you flashbacks--guilty conscience I guess.

2:26 PM  

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