Excluding some exceptions, if a case is brought after the Statute of Limitations runs, the case is dead in the water. Landowners in Asheville, NC learned this severe lesson on June 9, 2014 when the U. S. Supreme Court ruled 7-2 against them. The ruling’s critics claim the Court’s decision will allow polluting companies to escape liability by merely hiding their polluting activities long enough to outlast the statute.
The CTS Corporation, an electronics plant operating and releasing toxic chemicals in Asheville, NC from 1959 – 1985, then selling the property in 1987, was sued by local landowners and their families who allegedly suffered illnesses such as thyroid disorders and tumors from enduring toxins. Though health problems caused by toxins can take decades to manifest, North Carolina’s applicable statute stops a company’s liability 10 years after its last act of contamination (apparently no matter when the contamination is discovered); therefore, the suit should have been brought within a decade. Unfortunately for the affected Asheville residents, they did not learn about the contamination and many of them did not become sickened until after the suit clock stopped.
Relying on a federal statute of limitations that allows the clock to start ticking when a victim first learns about – or should have learned about – the contamination that probably caused his/her injuries, the alleged victims sued CTS Corporation in 2011. CTS challenged the suit’s timing, claiming that it was barred by the shorter North Carolina statute. In July 2013, the U. S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit ruled that the federal law governs, allowing the landowners’ suit to continue. However, On June 9, 2014, the U. S. Supreme Court reversed that decision, ruling that the North Carolina statute does bar the landowners’ suit against CTS Corporation.
Perhaps the most surprising development is the Department of Justice’s filing in support of CTS! The Department of Justice filed two amicus briefs supporting the shorter statute because this case affects “ongoing litigation against the United States” due to “allegations of contaminated drinking water” at Camp Lejeune in a suit brought by military veterans who became ill at the North Carolina camp. Consequently, the U. S. Supreme Court’s decision has broad consequences for the Asheville plaintiffs, former Marines suing the U. S. government for Camp Lejeune’s water contamination, and other current & future victims of polluting companies who can take advantage of state statutes of limitations.
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