The South Carolina Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that neighbors are allowed to sue a former electronics manufacturer in Myrtle Beach whose operations contaminated groundwater for more than a half-mile radius around the site, even if they were not physically impacted by the pollution.
Legal actions in the case of the now-closed AVX Corporation site have been going on for more than six years. The Sun News of Myrtle Beach first reported Thursday that the Supreme Court justices overturned a lower court decision dismissing the lawsuit filed by property owners just outside that half-mile radius. The lawsuit had been filed by neighbors whose land was not actually contaminated, but claimed who their property values were severely impacted by the nearby pollution.
In a 3-2 ruling, the justices narrowly agreed that these indirectly-impacted property owners should have the opportunity to argue that AVX’s negligence hurt their property values. If the legal system were to allow those “stigma damages” to be considered, the court hinted it would be a first under South Carolina legal precedent.
“In alleging damages, appellants contend that their property is ‘worthless,’ ‘damaged,’ and ‘devalued’ by the ‘harmful’ and ‘dangerous’ chemicals on the real property that adjoins their properties,” Justice Costa Pleicones wrote for the majority. “This pleading raises the novel question whether South Carolina will recognize ‘stigma damages.’
The pollution stems from AVX’s use and handling of trichloroethylene (TCE), an industrial degreaser that has been linked to cancer during the 1970s and 1980s. Several lawsuits have since claimed the company knew about TCE contamination moving offsite through groundwater by the 1980s, but did not inform state officials until offsite groundwater testing found high levels of the chemical in 2006. AVX moved its headquarters to Fountain Inn a few years later.
The company has settled multiple lawsuits with property owners whose land adjoins the former manufacturing site.
Chief Justice Jean Toal disagreed with the ruling, arguing it is unprecedented in South Carolina legal history. “Due to the speculative nature of their claims, (the property owners) have provided no reason for the Court to depart from the requirement of actual damage in claims involving environmental contamination,” she wrote in her minority opinion.