The Texas Supreme Court’s opinion in Natural Gas Pipeline Company of America v. Justiss highlights a subtle but important point regarding the way appellate courts treat undisputed facts. The case concerned claims by neighboring landowners that a natural gas plant created offensive odors, thus constituting a permanent nuisance. The statute of limitations for permanent nuisance is two years. It was undisputed that the defendant began receiving odor complaints well before two years prior to suit. Nevertheless, the jury selected a date for the accrual of the cause of action that was within the limitations period.
The defendant contended on appeal that the undisputed evidence of prior complaints conclusively demonstrated that any cause of action for permanent nuisance accrued beyond the limitations period. The Supreme Court, however, disagreed. While the jury was not free to disregard the fact that some complaints had been made, it was not forced to draw the conclusion that a cause of action existed at that time. The jury could have determined that the earlier complaints were from hypersensitive persons and that a reasonable person would not have been offended by the odors until less than two years prior to suit. This possible conclusion was bolstered by evidence that the odor conditions had worsened over time.
The Justiss case highlights the need to distinguish between facts concerning discrete events (a complaint occurring on a particular date) and factual conclusions (a reasonable person would have had cause to complain on a particular date). Only when an undisputed fact can lead to a simple valid conclusion is it “conclusive” in a legal sense. In arguing the effect of undisputed facts, the advocate must take the next step and show how only one conclusion may be drawn from it.