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Does a Prior Property Owner Have Liability for a Dangerous Condition in Texas?

water-tank-on-alcatraz-1551234In Occidental Chemical Corporation v. Jenkins, the Texas Supreme Court considered a premises liability case in which the property’s dangerous condition was created by an previous owner. The case arose in 2006 when a man was injured while using a component to add acid to a large tank at a chemical plant. The plant produced triethylene glycol (“TEG”). This needed to be kept at a particular acidity.

The acid-addition device had multiple components. In 1992, it was designed and put on the tank by Occidental Chemical Corporation, and it was believed to be a safer way to add acid to regulate the pH. It was used for six years without a problem. In 1998, the plan was sold to Equistar Chemicals, the plaintiff’s employer. Many years later, the plaintiff was injured.

His employer asked the plaintiff to add acid to the tank for the first time.. He looked at the operating instructors and added the acid. Later, he was asked to adjust the pH again. However, the acid from the morning remained in the system under pressure. When he opened the first valve, acid flew into his eyes.

The plaintiff sued Occidental and others, claiming Occidental’s negligent design was the legal cause of his injuries. The defendant denied the allegations and argued that two statutes of repose applied. At a jury trial, the jury determined that the design and operating instructions were negligent and were the legal causes of the plaintiff’s injuries. The jury did not agree with Occidental that its statute of repose defenses applied. However, the trial court believed that one of the repose defenses was supported and rendered a take-nothing judgment.

The appellate court disagreed about the statutes of repose defenses. Occidental argued that it didn’t breach a duty of care towards the plaintiff and claimed that the sole basis of the plaintiff’s lawsuit was premises liability. This theory wouldn’t apply to Occidental because it didn’t own or control the property at the time of the accident. The court disagreed on the grounds that the plaintiff had styled his complaint as one based on negligent design, which would survive the sale of the property. The appellate court reversed and remanded.

Occidental asked the Supreme Court to review the case. The Texas Supreme Court explained that a person injured on someone else’s property can have both a negligence and a premises liability cause of action against a property owner. If the injury arises from the condition of the property, premises liability applies. Under premises liability law, a property owner owes someone invited to the land a duty to keep the property in a safe condition or provide warnings. This duty accompanies the ownership of the property and will pass to a new owner.

Usually, a seller of land isn’t responsible for injuries caused to third persons based on a dangerous condition that already existed once a new buyer takes possession. The appellate court in this case thought there was an exception for a dangerous condition designed by the seller of the land.

The Court explained that Occidental was the designer of the dangerous condition and also the former property owner. The jury’s liability finding relied only on the first of these roles. The Court further explained that just because the acid addition system was part of real property, this didn’t remove Occidental’s duties regarding the safety of the system design. The Court disagreed with the appellate court’s dual role analysis and rejected the idea that a property owner acts as both owner and independent contractor when improving its own property. Instead, premises liability applies to a property owner that creates a hazardous condition.

If an injury occurs after the creator of the hazardous condition conveys the property, the premises liability claim is against the new owner. In this case, Occidental had no control over the plant after the sale, and the injury occurred eight years after the sale. There was no way for Occidental to protect the plaintiff. The Court found that the court of appeals had erred in holding Occidental liable for the hazardous condition. It reversed the court of appeals and rendered a judgment that the plaintiff take nothing.

If you are injured due to a dangerous condition on property or while working, the experienced San Antonio attorneys at Carabin & Shaw may be able to represent you and develop a sound strategy for handling your premises liability case. Call our office for more information at 1-800-862-1260.

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