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U.S. Supreme Court Rules Against NC Homeowners in Pollution Case

Brandon Evans   |  June 16, 2014   |  

North Carolina homeowners who discovered that their drinking water had been contaminated by toxic chemicals are left with little recourse after the U.S. Supreme Court decided that the families had missed their deadline to sue.

Background

A group Asheville homeowners discovered that their well water had been contaminated by toxic chemicals decades after an industrial facility owned by CTS Corporation shut down. The chemicals from the manufacturing plant had leaked into the groundwater in the Asheville area and contaminated the supply of drinking water. Residents of the area first noticed the contamination in 1999, which was 13 years after the CTS plant closed, and 12 years after CTS sold the property.

Just three days ago, the EPA conducted testing in the area and recommended that 13 residents near the plant move immediately. Evaporation from the polluted groundwater was evaporating, and leaving unsafe levels of carcinogens in the air.

Affected Asheville residents filed a lawsuit in North Carolina state court against CTS in 2011, almost 24 years after the company ceased its operations. The homeowners claimed that the EPA notified them of the water contamination in 2009.

Initial Proceedings

CTS moved to dismiss the homeowners’ lawsuit on the grounds that the statute of repose for the claims had expired. In North Carolina, the state’s statute of repose says in pollution cases, a lawsuit must be brought within 10 years of the act of contamination. CTS argued that since it had sold its plant and stopped all pollution in 1987, the statute had expired and the lawsuit should be dismissed.

The state court agreed with CTS, and dismissed the homeowners’ claims. The homeowners appealed to the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, and argued that a federal law, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA) preempted, or overruled, the state’s statute of repose.

Under CERCLA, the statute of limitations creating a deadline for pollution lawsuits only begins to run when a person discovers, or should have discovered, the pollution or environmental harm. Using this framework, the statute of limitations would have begun in 2009, when the EPA notified homeowners of the contamination. Using CERCLA, the homeowners’ lawsuit would be filed in plenty of time before the deadline.

The Court of Appeals agreed with the homeowners’ argument, and overruled the trial court. CTS appealed this judgment to the United States Supreme Court.

Supreme Court Decision

The Supreme Court focused on the differences between a statute of limitations and a statute of repose. Many people understand that a statute of limitations creates a somewhat-flexible deadline for filing a lawsuit. For example, if a person is the victim of fraud in North Carolina, they have three years from the date of the fraudulent action to file a lawsuit against the person responsible. However, this deadline can be extended for several reasons; if the person had no idea that fraud was committed against him or her until two years later, the statute of limitations would be tolled, or stopped, until the date the fraud was discovered. This would give the victim an additional two years to file a lawsuit.

In contrast, a statute of repose is much less flexible. Statutes of repose create hard deadlines from the date an act is committed—in this case, the act of pollution. Under statutes of repose, there are no opportunities to toll or extend the deadline.

In the Supreme Court case, the Court agreed that CERCLA, the federal anti-pollution law, was meant to supersede state statutes of limitation. In fact, the federal law repeatedly refers to preempting state statutes of limitations.

However, the Court did not agree that the federal law was meant to replace statutes of repose. Since North Carolina’s anti-pollution statutes were statutes of repose, and not statutes of limitation, CERCLA could not extend the deadline for filing a lawsuit, and the homeowners’ lawsuit was time barred.

What the Court’s Decision Means

As a result of the Supreme Court’s decision, the North Carolina homeowners’ lawsuit will be dismissed. Unless the homeowners can find another way to get around the statute of repose, they will not be able to recover damages for the pollution to their properties.

This decision will likely have widespread environmental impacts across the country. In states like North Carolina, companies which succeed in hiding their pollution for 10 years will never have any liability for their actions. This is especially troubling in light of the evidence that many types of environmental pollution take years, if not decades, to cause injury. For example, children who were exposed in utero to pollutants may develop multiple types of cancer directly related to their exposure. By the time these illnesses develop, however, several years may have passed and it could be too late to seek recovery in a lawsuit. Unless the state legislature acts to change this statute, North Carolina citizens who have been harmed by decades-old contaminants may be left with no recourse for their injuries.

If you have been injured by chemicals or pollutants, don’t waste time! Contact the toxic tort attorneys at Riddle & Brantley today. Call (800)525-7111 for a free consultation.