Property Owner Liability and Reno Hazmat Close-Call

Hazmat Suit

When most readers hear the word “hazmat,” they likely think of suspenseful movie scenes from films such as “E.T.” or “Outbreak.” The image that likely comes to mind is of a team of body-suited technicians who swoop in seemingly from nowhere, their faces obscured by plastic guards or mirrored shields, to address some kind of emergent situation. Caution tape is strung around an over-wide perimeter, emergency responders control the scene, and ordinary people caught up in the chaos may be compelled to leave or even forced into quarantine. When a Reno neighborhood had a recent hazmat scare, the scene was tense yet not quite so dramatic.

Hazmat (sometimes written in all capital letters as HAZMAT) is a mashup of the words hazardous and material that means precisely that: hazardous material. For the grammar buffs out there, this kind of mashup is called a portmanteau. [1] Perhaps the best example of a portmanteau for the modern audience is “brunch,” which mashes together breakfast and lunch to describe the special meal that occurs between the two standard mealtimes. Other examples include smog (smoke and fog) and motel (motor and hotel), but these terms are so commonplace in modern parlance that their mashed-up nature is easily overlooked.

Now, with that bit of minutiae out of the way, let’s examine the recent Reno hazmat incident and explore what it demonstrates in terms of personal injury liability.

The Reno Hazmat Scare

Last week the Reno Fire Department responded to a potential hazmat situation in northwest Reno. A substance spilled on the roadway near the intersection of Robb Drive and Las Brisas Boulevard, which is close to Rollan Melton Elementary School. The Reno Fire Department dispatched its Regional Hazardous Materials Response Team’s Mass Decontamination Unit and other specialized staff and equipment in response to the report. Ultimately the specialists concluded that the substance that had spilled was not hazardous, and the crew worked to clean up the mess while restoring normal traffic flow. The last street directly affected by the issue was Avenida de Landa, which turns into Las Brisas at the Robb intersection. [2]

With the benefit of perfect hindsight, the incident may seem like a false alarm or an overreaction; it likely felt that way to residents who were unable to reach their homes or who feared they might need to evacuate. As with many emergency precautions, they can seem rigid and disruptive when they turn out not to have been necessary. But the risk of hazmat spill injuries is a part of living in Nevada, and it is important to respond appropriately to potential hazmat incidents. Here is a list of just a few of the recent hazmat incidents reported in recent months in our state:

  • August 2019 – sulfuric acid spill near Emigrant Pass, west of Carlin
  • August 2019 – lime powder spill near Oasis, east of Wells [3]
  • November 2019 – noxious odor near Gentry Way in Reno [4]
  • December 2019 – hydrochloric acid spill on I-580 in Reno [5]
  • January 2020 – hazmat concerns over possible methamphetamine lab [6]

Nevada’s role as one of the world’s leading gold producers is one factor that contributes to so many potential hazmat incidents, as modern gold mining is a chemical-intensive process. Northern Nevada is also increasingly home to manufacturing and other industries that require harsh chemicals. Nevada law requires special licenses for drivers of vehicles that handle hazardous materials. [7]

As the list above shows, these incidents take place across our expansive state. Hazmat spills know no borders, either, and they can occur in administratively difficult places such as near the border of two jurisdictions. In the Reno-Sparks area, perennial difficulties in coordinating responsibilities among distinct emergency response agencies are yet another complicating factor in responding to potential hazmat injuries. [8] But beyond emergency response, who is responsible for a hazmat spill injury?

A Primer on Premises Liability

The United States has a “common law” tradition, which is a way of making case law by studying past cases and comparing them to new ones. This system is predominant in Anglo-American countries, but many parts of the world rely on a more detailed set of statutes that attempt to account for a wide range of circumstances. Long ago, the most jurisdictions in the United States distinguished different types of premises liability based on whether the injured party was an invitee, licensee, or trespasser on the defendant’s land.

This approach ultimately proved too rigid and prone to absurd results. Today Nevada courts decide personal injury cases based on the defendant landowner’s exercise of a reasonable amount of care under the circumstances. Many factors affect this analysis, including the type of injured party. Thus, instead of owing completely different duties to a social guest (invitee) or a power company technician (licensee), the law asks whether the landowner’s conduct was reasonable. In this way a power company technician might recover damages for his injuries from a rotten branch that fell on him, but a visiting aunt might not win damages after she cuts herself on an exposed piece of scrap metal while rooting around in her nephew’s toolshed. (Nevada law does include special statutes that affect premises liability to certain recreational users [9] and trespassers [10].)

This same approach applies when it comes to hazmat injuries under Nevada law. If a passing truck spills a hazardous chemical on a landowner’s property and someone is later injured because of it, it is less likely that the landowner will be liable. But if the occupant stores hazardous materials on the premises and those substances leak, explode, or otherwise cause injury to others, then a Nevada hazmat injury lawsuit is more likely to prevail.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Portmanteau

[2] https://mynews4.com/news/local/possible-hazmat-closes-las-brisas-blvd-in-northwest-reno

[3] https://www.kolotv.com/content/news/Two-hazmat-incidents-Sunday-on-I-80-in-eastern-Nevada-519159141.html

[4] https://www.ktvn.com/story/41371429/crews-responding-to-hazmat-incident

[5] https://www.kolotv.com/content/news/I-580-closed-due-to-hazmat-spill-566188081.html

[6] https://www.ktvn.com/story/41545715/crews-responding-to-hazmat-situation-in-lemmon-valley

[7] https://dmvnv.com/dlhazmat.htm

[8] https://mynews4.com/news/local/city-of-reno-holds-special-meeting-to-address-public-safety

[9] https://www.leg.state.nv.us/NRS/NRS-041.html#NRS041Sec510

[10] https://www.leg.state.nv.us/NRS/NRS-041.html#NRS041Sec515

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