Law School Case Brief
Bradley v. Am. Smelting & Ref. Co. - 635 F. Supp. 1154 (W.D. Wash. 1986)
A motion for summary judgment may be granted only where there exists no genuine issue of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c).
Plaintiffs Michael O. Bradley and Marie A. Bradley are landowners on the southern end of Vashon Island in King County, Washington, about four miles north of defendant American Smelting and Refining Company's copper smelter at Ruston, Washington. Plaintiff landowners filed a state court case against defendant company for nuisance and trespassing, alleging that defendant's smelter had emitted particles of arsenic and cadmium into the air for a number of years and that some such particles were carried by the wind and deposited on plaintiffs' property. For purposes of certification, the parties stipulated that particulate emissions from defendant's smelter are in fact carried by the wind and deposited on plaintiffs' land and that the particles so deposited are imperceptible to human senses. On these and other stipulated facts, the Washington Supreme Court held that emission of imperceptible airborne pollutants that settle on another person's land may constitute trespass as well as nuisance; that a trespass claim based on such emissions requires proof of actual damages; and that the limitations period for a trespass claim based on such emissions is three years.
Now, in federal District Court, plaintiffs filed another certification for damages, while defendant moved for summary judgment as to both the trespass and the nuisance claims. As for the trespass claim, defendant argues that plaintiffs have incurred no actual damages; even assuming that particles of arsenic and cadmium emitted from defendant's smelter have settled onto plaintiffs' land, these materials are innocuous in the tiny concentrations in which they actually have been found in plaintiff's soil. As for the nuisance claim, defendant argues that it has not substantially interfered with plaintiffs' use and enjoyment of their property, that there has been no physical interference, and that any distress plaintiffs feel is unwarranted.
Should the court grant defendant smelting company's motion for summary judgment in plaintiff landowners' suit for trespass and nuisance?
The United States District Court granted defendant's motion. The court concluded that summary judgment in defendant's favor was appropriate as to trespass because plaintiffs have not incurred any injury to support recovery in trespass. Because the undisputed evidence indicates that any arsenic or cadmium in plaintiffs' soil has not damaged plaintiffs' property, the court concluded that plaintiffs are unable to establish a necessary element of their trespass claim and that, therefore, defendant's motion for summary judgment should be granted as to plaintiffs' trespass claim. The court concluded that defendant's motion for summary judgment should be granted as to plaintiffs' nuisance claim because plaintiffs' distress was not compensable because the distress was clearly not a harm on which recovery for nuisance may be based.
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