State Supreme Court Overturns Manure Pollution Ruling
Source: http://www.wisconsinagconnection.com, January 5, 2015
The Wisconsin Supreme Court has reversed an appeals court ruling that earlier determined that a Washington County farm couple was not responsible for compensating their neighbors out of pocket for well contamination expenses caused by manure run-off.
According to court records, the Department of Natural Resources notified Robert and Jane Falk in 2011 that manure spread on their fields had contaminated the well water of neighboring residents . The Falks then filed a claim with Wilson Mutual Insurance to compensate the neighbors, but the insurance company said its policy excluded coverage for damage caused by pollutants, such as animal waste.
When the issue went to court, Washington County Circuit Judge Todd Martens agreed that the definition of pollutant meant Wilson Mutual was not obligated to pay the claim. The case was then presented to the 2nd District Court of Appeals, which reversed the ruling in late 2013. That court stated that farmers consider manure as a nutrient for their fields, not a pollutant. Especially since the Falks had spread their farm’s manure in accordance with a plan approved by Washington County Land and Water Conservation Division.
Meanwhile, last week’s Supreme Court decision means the insurance company is no longer obligated to pay the claims because justices consider manure a pollutant once it leaves the field and enters the aquifer.
“We hold that the pollution exclusion clause in the farm insurance policy issued to the Falk’s unambiguously excludes coverage for well contamination caused by the seepage of cow manure,” wrote Justice Michael Gableman in last week’s opinion. “While when safely and beneficially applied, manure may be universally present, desirable, and generally harmless substance, this ignores the occurrence for which the Falks seek coverage. A reasonable insured would not view manure as universally present and generally harmless when present in a well.”
Despite the ruling, the justices did note that fine print found in the insurance contract’s incidental coverages section means the insurance company needs to pay up to $500 for each well that has been contaminated by the manure, with the Falks being responsible for the rest of the monetary damages.