The New Jersey Supreme Court recently clarified the elements needed to sustain a claim for nuisance and trespass in the environmental context.  Generally, plaintiffs assert claims under common law such as nuisance and trespass to recover non-cleanup costs associated with environmental contamination.  In Ross v. Lowitz, the defendant homeowners tested an underground storage tank (“UST”) on their property and discovered that the UST leaked.  They subsequently notified their insurance companies.  The contamination on the defendant homeowners’ property migrated to the plaintiffs’ adjacent property.  The insurance companies funded the cleanup and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection eventually issued a No Further Action Letter for the cleanup.  However, as a result of the contamination, a prospective purchaser of the plaintiffs’ house cancelled the contract of sale.

The plaintiffs filed suit against defendant homeowners and asserted among other claims, nuisance and trespass.  The plaintiffs also sued the defendant homeowners’ insurance companies asserting that they were a third party beneficiary under the insurance policies.  The plaintiffs sought damages for alleged loss of use of their home and diminution in the value of their property.  The defendants moved for summary judgment and the trial court dismissed the claims against the insurance company and plaintiffs’ claims under the theories of nuisance and trespass.  The appellate division affirmed the trial court’s determination.

The New Jersey Supreme Court in affirming the lower court’s decision, clarified the necessary elements to maintain a cause of action under common law nuisance and trespass.  The Court reviewed the Restatement (Second) of Torts to determine the validity of plaintiffs’ nuisance and trespass claims.  In addressing the nuisance claim, the Court noted that under Section 822 of the Restatement, the plaintiffs must show that the discharge of contaminants from the homeowners’ UST was either negligent or the result of an abnormally dangerous activity.  The Court noted that the storage of home heating oil in a UST is not an abnormally dangerous activity.  The Court further found no fault on behalf of the defendant homeowners that would support a claim for nuisance.

The Court made a similar determination regarding plaintiffs’ trespass cause of action.  Again relying on the Restatements, the Court concluded that to maintain a cause of action under trespass, the plaintiffs must show that defendant homeowners were at fault.  Because the homeowners acted in a reasonable manner in having the UST tested and then contacting their insurance companies upon finding that the UST leaked, the Court affirmed the dismissal of the plaintiffs’ trespass and nuisance claims.

In addressing plaintiffs’ claim against the homeowners’ insurance company, the Court noted that in order for a third party to be found a beneficiary to a contract, the contracting parties must have expressed an intent to have the third party a beneficiary of the contract when they entered into their agreement.  The Court found that there was no evidence that the parties intended the plaintiffs to be third-party beneficiaries to the insurance policy.  The Court ruled that the trial court properly dismissed plaintiffs’ claims against the insurance companies.

The take away from this case is that the mere discharge of contamination that impacts the property of another is insufficient to support claims under common law nuisance and trespass.  There must also be a showing that the persons responsible for the discharge of contaminants were at fault in allowing the discharge to occur.