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Size Doesn’t Matter under New York’s Oil Spill Law

On January 4, 2016, Judge Sondra K. Pardes from Supreme Court, New York County, in Guidice v. Patterson Oil, granted Plaintiffs, Joseph Guidice and Loretta Guidice’s motion for summary judgment on the issue of liability against Defendants, Patterson Oil, Patterson Energy Group, Patterson Energy, Patterson Fuel Oil Company, Inc., Petro Inc., and Petroleum Heat and Power Company, Inc., awarding them strict liability under Section 181 of the New York Navigation Law (Oil Spill Law).

The action before the Court stemmed from a small spill of heating oil during the course of a delivery. In opposition to Plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment on liability, defendants argued that the quantity of the spill was not significant enough to trigger strict liability.

In its analysis of the issue, the Court indicated that no prior case law was specifically on point however, found that the Defendants’ position is inconsistent with both the plain language and the legislative purpose of the relevant statute. Specifically, the Court determined that, the statute does not set forth any minimum quantity of petroleum product that must be released before the statute’s provisions apply, nor does it foreclose strict liability for “de minimis” spills. However, a defendant may be able to demonstrate that a de minimis spill resulted in no damages, but damages are a separate question from liability. (Novick v. Sun Oil Co. Of Penn., 103 A.D.2d 800 [2d Dept 1984]).

The Court’s decision is important as it clearly eliminates any potential for a de minims exception and establishes that even if a spill is only a very small amount of oil, defendants can be held strictly liable under Section 181 of the NY Navigation Law. Accordingly, defendants will need to focus on other arguments to attempt to avoid liability or contest the matter on damages grounds.

By David W. Fink, Esq.

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