Supreme Court upholds North Carolina limits on pollution lawsuits

McClatchy Washington BureauJune 9, 2014 

The Supreme Court on Monday dealt a blow to North Carolina families trying to sue over groundwater contamination at a big Marine Corps base.

In a technical decision with real-world consequences, the court upheld North Carolina's limits on how long people have to bring certain pollution-related lawsuits. By upholding the state’s 10-year limit, called a statute of repose, the court undercut lawsuits centering on Camp Lejeune.

“Time is the controlling factor,” Justice Anthony Kennedy noted.

The North Carolina law starts a 10-year clock running from the last culpable act of the defendant; for instance, from when a company stops polluting or sells its property. After the clock runs out, lawsuits are banned.

The 10-year statute of repose is a stricter standard, and potentially friendlier to polluters, than a federal law that starts a two-year clock running only after people discover they have been harmed.

But though it was not close, the court’s 7-2 majority decision also drew a sharp retort from dissenting justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.

“Instead of encouraging prompt identification and remediation before it can kill, the court’s decision gives contaminators an incentive to conceal the hazards they have created until the repose period has run its full course,” Ginsburg wrote.

The decision Monday involved CTS Corp.

CTS owned, until 1987, a manufacturing facility in Asheville, N.C. The land was subsequently sold and developed as a residential subdivision. More than a decade after CTS sold the land, residents began learning that their well water contained carcinogenic chemicals, including trichloroethylene, one of the chemicals also found in Camp Lejeune water.

The water pollution at Camp Lejeune, though not directly at issue in the case decided Monday, was not discovered for more than a decade after the polluting actions stopped.

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