U.S. Supreme Court

Superfund law doesn't pre-empt state outer limit for filing tort suit, SCOTUS says

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled against a group of North Carolina property owners suing over contaminated water who claimed the state’s outer time limit for filing lawsuits didn’t apply.

The property owners had argued the federal Superfund law governing the cleanup of hazardous waste pre-empted the state statute of repose, which requires tort suits to be filed within 10 years of the last culpable act of the defendant. Under the Superfund law, the time limit for filing suit begins to run with the discovery of the injury.

The federal law pre-empts state statutes of limitation, but not state statutes of repose, the Supreme Court ruled in a 7-2 decision (PDF). Statutes of limitation set time limits for suit based on the date when the claim accrues, while statutes of repose set an outer time limit on suits that is measured from the last culpable act or omission of the defendant, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy explained in the opinion for the court.

The property owners sued in 2011, 24 years after the defendant, CTS Corp., allegedly sold contaminated property. The property owners said they didn’t discover the pollution until 2009, when the Environmental Protection Agency disclosed that their well water was contaminated.

Kennedy’s opinion was joined in full by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. Four other justices—Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia and Samuel A. Alito Jr.—joined Kennedy’s opinion except for a section that said a presumption disfavors pre-emption when a statute is ambiguous.

The case is CTS Corp. v. Waldburger.

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