What’s That Terrible Smell?

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A Midlands landowner is forced to abandon his stinky property, and the SC Court of Appeals says Insurance Reserve Fund doesn’t need to pay.

The South Carolina Court of Appeals held on March 23 that the South Carolina Insurance Reserve Fund (the Fund) has no duty to defend or indemnify East Richland County Public Service District (the District) in connection with a claim by a property owner of inverse condemnation, trespass and negligence resulting from offensive odors*.stinky smell

In 2010, Coley Brown filed a complaint alleging the District had installed a sewage force main and air relief valve which released offensive odors on his property multiple times a day.

A District employee testified that a force main had been installed as a part of a larger project that included two nearby pump stations. The pump stations were designed to pump sewage through the force main when the sewage reached a certain level. Depending on the area’s water usage and weather, the pump stations might turn on as often as ten times per hour. The odor was a result of naturally occurring hydrogen sulfide-which smells like rotten eggs-and methane.

In response to the complaints, the District made several attempts to remedy the odors, including using a chlorine-based chemical, installing charcoal filters, and eventually using a granulated chemical media. When the District failed to cure the problem, Brown moved to a different location but was unable to sell the stinky property.

The District tendered Brown’s complaint to the Fund pursuant to its insurance policy, but the Fund denied coverage. Under the policy, the Fund is obligated to pay damages resulting from property damage caused by an occurrence, defined as an accident, including continuous or repeated exposure to conditions, which result in personal injury or property damage neither expected nor intended. The policy has a “pollution exclusion” that refers to gasses and fumes.

The Circuit Court found that the Fund had no duty to defend or indemnity the District in the underlying case, finding the policy’s policy exclusion to be valid despite the District’s argument that the exclusion conflicts the South Carolina Tort Claims Act. The Court of Appeals reviewed the Tort Claims Act and found no conflict. The Court also reviewed cases from other jurisdictions holding that foul odors are encompassed by such pollution exclusions.

The District then argued that an exception to the pollution exclusion applies if the discharge, dispersal, release or escape of pollutants is sudden and accidental. The Court was not persuaded by this argument, indicating the releases were not accidental and unexpected, but were a necessary function of the District’s normal operations.

* S.C. Insurance Reserve Fund v. East Richland Public Service District, Appellate Case No. 2014-000728, March 23, 2016)

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