Q&A with Dean Couch
Supreme Court accepts maximum time limit in filing pollution suits
Q: The U.S. Supreme Court decided a case, CTS Corp. v. Waldburger, in June concerning toxic torts, environmental damages and when lawsuits against polluters must be filed. Lawsuits regarding water contamination are nothing new. Why is this ruling significant?
A: In this case the U.S. Supreme Court accepts a maximum time period in which a lawsuit can be filed against a polluter after the pollution event, even if the pollution isn’t discovered until after the maximum time period to file the lawsuit. The result respects a state’s right to adopt a state law that limits citizens’ ability to file lawsuits against polluters.
Q: What deadlines does the Superfund law set for filing an environmental lawsuit?
A: The federal Superfund law about hazardous substances and wastes didn’t provide separate authority to file a lawsuit in federal court for personal injury or property damages against a polluter. Instead, the federal law relied on existing state laws about those kinds of pollution damage lawsuits. The federal law does include a specific statement to say that personal injury or property damages lawsuits filed under state law caused by hazardous substances pollution must be filed within the statute of limitations period prescribed by state law, but with a slight twist. The federal law also said that the time frame to file a lawsuit starts when the person damaged “knew or reasonably should have known” that the damages were caused by the hazardous waste pollution. However, in this case, the Supreme Court noted that the North Carolina state law at issue was a statute of repose and not a statute of limitation.
Q: How does a statute of repose differ from a statute of limitation?
A: A statute of repose sets a maximum time period for when a lawsuit must be filed after an event occurs. A statute of repose applies whether or not injury or damage has been discovered. The cause of action is said to be extinguished after the statute of repose period passes. This is different from a statute of limitation where it is said that a cause of action may exist, but the lawsuit must be filed by a certain date. If landowners discover after the end of a statute of repose period that their groundwater is polluted by acts of a previous owner, the landowners lose the cause of action and will not be able to maintain a lawsuit at all, even if they file within a short time after discovering the pollution. Statutes of repose usually include a lengthy time period, such as North Carolina’s 10-year period involved in this case. Statutes of repose are often seen as a way to clear out all potential liability for an event that occurred a long time ago.
PAULA BURKES, BUSINESS WRITER