Fourth Circuit Rules CERCLA Preempts State Statute of Repose

Posted on July 22, 2013 by Daniel Riesel

On July 10, 2013, a divided Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals held the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act’s (“CERCLA’s”) federally-mandated commencement date preempts not only state statutes of limitations but also statutes of repose, an issue that has split federal courts and left considerable uncertainty about the timeliness of claims arising under CERCLA and environmental common law.

One of the unique aspects of CERCLA is that it imposes a universal statute of limitations on toxic torts and other state law claims for damages “caused or contributed to by exposure to any hazardous substance or pollutant or contaminant.”  42 U.S.C. § 9658(b)(4).  This statute of limitations runs from the time the plaintiff discovers, or reasonably should have discovered, the cause of the injury or damages.  CERCLA expressly preempts state statutes of limitations that set an earlier commencement date, such as the date of the tortious conduct or the date of the injury.       

CERCLA’s “federally required commencement date” has generated considerable commentary and confusion, with federal courts split over the scope of CERCLA’s preemptive effect.  One particularly divisive issue involves whether CERCLA preempts state statutes of repose, which are separate from statutes of limitations.  Statutes of repose generally provide a longer period in which to file a claim, but they cannot be tolled and often begin to run earlier as well.  Noting that the federally required commencement date under CERCLA refers only to “statutes of limitations,” the Fifth Circuit has held “the plain language of [CERCLA] does not extend to statutes of repose.”  Burlington N. & Santa Fe Ry. Co. v. Poole Chem. Co., 419 F.3d 355, 362 (5th Cir. 2005).

In Waldburger v. CTS Corporation, 2013 WL 3455775 (4th Cir. July 10, 2013), the Fourth Circuit adopted the contrary position, finding the relevant text of CERCLA to be ambiguous and interpreting it to preempt a North Carolina statute of repose.  Reversing the United States District Court for the Western District of North Carolina, the Fourth Circuit held that courts and lawmakers have often used the terms “statute of repose” and “statute of limitations” interchangeably, and that the application of CERCLA’s federal discovery rule was more consistent with the statute’s remedial purpose.  It therefore held a state repose period that required real property claims to be filed within 10 years of the tortious action did not apply to a nuisance claim alleging the discovery of groundwater contamination several years after the final alleged discharge.  In dissent, Judge Stephanie Thacker argued that, “the plain and unambiguous language of § 9658 indicates only statutes of limitations were intended to be preempted.” 

The Waldburger ruling will benefit plaintiffs harmed by the latent effects of environmental contamination, who may not become aware of their injuries until after a state statute of repose has run.  Such plaintiffs must exercise reasonable diligence, however, to establish they did not have reason to know of the harm at an earlier date. 



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