Residential Contamination

While we often think of environmental litigation as dealing with significant oil spills, climate change, pollutants being lost from tailings ponds or to challenge government decisions to drastically alter a landscape, more common are the little events, like ones that can occur around your home. That was the case in Jerabek v. Scotia Fuels Ltd. 2015 NSSC 283.

In this case, some homeowners, on the advice of their home inspector, engaged their fuel oil supplier, Scotia Fuels Ltd. (“SF Inc.”) to replace their fuel oil tank in the furnace room of their residence. It was determined that the fuel tank was defectively installed by SF Inc., and an oil spill, consisting of approximately 25 litres of oil, had contaminated the ground below the residence, and reached the first chamber of septic tank which was then excavated and removed.

SF Inc. accepted full responsibility for the incident and assured the homeowners that their house would be made whole again through remediation work without any need to involve SF Inc.’s insurer. Despite this, however, the cleaning work performed by SF Inc. did not fully eliminate the oil smell in the residence. After completion of the remediation work, SF Inc. took the position that any continuing indoor air quality problem at the residence was not associated with the spill of fuel oil and, therefore, terminated its involvement with the residence.

Unfortunately, despite the remediation work, the homeowners could still detect a faint yet persistent hydrocarbon odour in the residence and retained company to conduct further air quality tests. After testing, the company recommended that the residence be cleaned by DLS Group, specialists in hydrocarbon decontamination. After cleaning, the hydrocarbon odour in the residence was fully eliminated. However, the cleaning cost the homeowners over $100,000.00, plus other expenses associated with the spill.

The homeowners brought a successful action for damages, alleging that the spill caused by SF Inc. led to the hydrocarbon smell, its remediation efforts were insufficient, and it then abandoned its remediation efforts. After a thorough review of the evidence, and an analysis of the law of causation in negligence, the Court found in favour of the homeowners, stating that:

““but for” causation is a factual inquiry into what likely happened. Scientific proof of causation is not required.

“…it is more likely than not that the root cause of the faint but persistent hydrocarbon odour complained of was the adherence of fuel oil vapours which permeated certain building materials and household contents during the initial remediation work.” My emphasis.

The homeowners were awarded damages of $166,399.49. The Court found that SF Inc. had an obligation to restore the residence to the same odour-free state that it was in before oil spill occurred.

James Early