By TONI ELLINGTON
On June 9, 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling in the case of CTS Corporation v. Waldburger, 573 U.S. __ (2014), a case which was appealed from the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. The question raised in the case was whether the federal Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act of 1980, or “CERCLA,” 42 U.S.C. §9601, et. seq., pre-empted the statute of repose for the state of North Carolina. CTS Corporation ran an electronics plant in Asheville, NC from 1959 to 1985. During its operation, the plant manufactured and disposed of electronics and electronic parts, and stored the chemicals trichloroethylene and cis1, 2 dichloroethane on the property.
In 1987, CTS sold the property and gave the buyer the promise that the site was environmentally sound. The buyer sold the property, and those subsequent buyers bought suit, alleging contamination to the land. Adjacent landowners also joined in the suit. The lawsuit was filed 24 years after CTS had sold the property. The plaintiffs raised a state-law nuisance cause of action, and sought reclamation of the toxic chemical contaminants, remediation of the environmental damages, and monetary damages. The plaintiffs claimed that they learned of the contamination in 2009.
CTS moved to dismiss the case based on North Carolina’s statute of repose, which prevents a plaintiff from bringing a tort claim more than 10 years after the last culpable act of the defendant. See N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. §1-52(16) (LEXIS 2013). The district court granted CTS’ motion to dismiss, but a divided Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed, finding that §9658 of CERCLA pre-empted the statute of repose. The Courts of Appeal of the different circuits had rendered conflicting judgments on this issue; therefore, the Supreme Court granted certiorari.
The Supreme Court reversed, finding that CERCLA and §9658 did not pre-empt the North Carolina statute of repose. The Court distinguished between statutes of limitations, which are designed to promote justice by encouraging plaintiffs to pursue claims diligently, and statutes of repose. A statute of repose, said the Court, is based on “a legislative judgment that a defendant should be free from liability after the legislatively determined amount of time” has passed. The Court examined the text of §9658 which refers to “the statute of limitations established under state law.
This ruling provides defendants with a potential defense to cases in which they may be sued for contamination done by a predecessor company many years prior to their ownership.
For further information, contact Toni Ellington at (504) 599-8502.