A federal court has weighed in on the issue of exposure in a toxic tort property damages suit, denying summary judgment and finding the presence of vinyl chloride in the air, even if undetectable, may constitute a physical injury to property under a common law property damage claim. Gates v. Rohm and Haas Co., 2008 WL 2977867 (E.D.Pa., July 31, 2008 ).

Plaintiffs in this putative class action sued Rohm and Haas and others pursuant to CERCLA, and state law, for damages allegedly resulting from contamination of their drinking water by pollutants that the Defendants allegedly generated and released. The proposed property damage class consisted of  about 500 “persons who presently own real property within McCollum Lake Village (‘Village’), or who owned real property within the Village as of April 25, 2006 through the present.” Defendants filed a motion for partial summary judgment with respect to the plaintiffs’ common law property claims: public and private nuisance, negligent and intentional trespass, strict liability, negligence and negligence per se for damages arising out of alleged continuing airborne vinyl chloride contamination and past groundwater contamination.

The plaintiffs contended that this alleged “physical invasion” of their property by a carcinogenic contaminant caused a diminution in value of their property, in part due to the stigma caused by the alleged contamination. Rohm and Haas argued that applicable (Illinois) law does not recognize a cause of action for “economic harm” absent physical damage. The plaintiffs’ property damage claim thus should fail because there was no evidence in the record of any physical injury to accompany the alleged economic injury (the diminution in value of the property due to supposed “stigma” associated with the alleged contamination).

According to the court, the first issue was the basic factual question of whether there was sufficient evidence of “present” contamination. The second issue was whether any such contamination constitutes a “physical injury.” And, finally, the third issue was whether diminution in value is an appropriate measure of damages based on the type of harm alleged.

A. “Present” Contamination
It was undisputed that at present no vinyl chloride or vinylidene chloride has been detected in any well in McCollum Lake Village. And it is undisputed that any alleged groundwater contamination was purely historical. It was unclear, however, to the court whether under Illinois law such past physical injury, coupled with ongoing alleged economic harm, suffices to permit pursuit of economic losses in tort. The fundamental factual question here for the court was whether there was sufficient evidence of permanent or ongoing physical injury to the plaintiffs’ property. Although defendants made a strong showing, the court found a genuine dispute as to whether present levels of airborne vinyl chloride in McCollum Lake Village are below background levels and, accordingly, whether there is current airborne vinyl chloride “contamination.”

B. “Physical” Injury
Even assuming past and present vinyl chloride exposure, the court had to determine whether such exposure constitutes a “physical injury” for purposes of stating common law tort claims. The court reasoned that the presence of harmful chemicals in property loss actions is treated differently than the presence of non-hazardous materials. Notably, there is no requirement that a hazardous chemical be perceptible to the senses. The presence of an undetected hazardous chemical can support a claim for nuisance, thought the court. That the chemical is not immediately perceptible to the senses is not dispositive when when there is evidence of actual physical invasion of class area property.

Moreover, said the court, in contrast to the standards for medical monitoring claims, the exposure level need not necessarily present a health risk to make out a property damage claim. Such a view is not unanimous in the courts. E.g., Rockwell Int’l Corp. v. Wilhite, 143 S.W.2d 604, 620, 627 (Ky.App.Ct.2003); Rose v. Union Oil Co., No. 97-2808, 1999 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 967, at *3-4, *17 (N.D.Cal. Jan. 29, 1999). Nevertheless, this court concluded that the physical presence of vinyl chloride in the air, even if undetectable, constitutes a physical injury to the property for purposes of common law property damage claims.

C. The Appropriate Measure of Damages
Third, the court concluded that in the context of the present case, diminution in value was an appropriate measure of damages. The categorization of harm as “permanent” or “temporary” is not always dispositive. Rather than a compelling legal analysis to respond to defendant’s strong argument on this point, the court resorted largely to the the generic policy observation that courts must be mindful of the fact that rules governing the proper measure of damages in a particular case are guides only and should not be applied in an arbitrary, formulaic, or inflexible manner.