In 1996, county officials in Washington state told Whitney Farms ¬†to deal with a dangerous condition on their property, after a 16-year old fell into a pit of smoldering grape pomace and was burned so badly his legs had to be amputated. They said that it was permissible for the farm to spread the pomace over their property for use as a soil additive, but argued they were not permitted to store the pomace in pits or piles, where it would be deprived of oxygen during decomposition, giving off heat sometimes raising temperatures in the pit to 500 degrees. The farm settled with the injured 16-year old, and the court opinion as to other defendants whose waste was disposed of on Whitney Farms; property seemed to indicate that the court saw violation of the regulations for dumping solid waste. County officials continued to demand the farm cure the dangerous condition on their property. The county went so far as filing a criminal action against Whitney Farms in 2007 based on their failure to comply with the directives to spread out the waste. However, the charges were later dropped because, according to the county, the statute under which charges were brought only prohibited the storage of solid waste, and because of the beneficial use of pomace as a soil additive, it didn’t seem they could prove that the pomace was waste.

In spite of the lack of a bases for criminal charges, though, Whitney Farms may still face repercussions for the continuing to dispose of pomace in the pits. The issue arises out of traditional premises liability principles. Whitney Farms sold property to a  family in 2010, and according to a complaint filed by the new owner, did not disclose the existence of the pits and their potentially dangerous nature. The owner fell into a hidden pit and suffered second and third degree burns in March, and claims Whitney Farms is responsible for his injuries. Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency is supervising the clean up of the property, and has reportedly already spread 11,000 acres of debris and dug up approximately 2,500 buried pits. The state Department of Ecology has asked Whitney Farms to disclose the location of other pits on the property.

Trial is scheduled for June of next year. Information on the previous case (and information about landowner premises liability in general) can be found on the National Agricultural Law Center’s website.


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