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Quick take: No preemption for state statutes of repose

In CTS Corp. v. Waldburger, the Court held that North Carolina’s statute of repose is not preempted by the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA) – commonly known as the Superfund law – which instead only preempts state statutes of limitations on bringing state law environmental tort cases. 

Here are the basic facts in the case:  From 1959 until 1985, CTS Corporation operated an electronics plant in North Carolina.  In 2011, owners of the former CTS property and adjacent properties filed a state-law nuisance case in federal district court, seeking to hold CTS responsible for damages from contaminants on the land.  The district court held that, because CTS had sold the property in 1987, the suit was barred by the state’s statute of repose, which prohibits tort suits filed more than ten years after the defendant’s last culpable act.   The Fourth Circuit reinstated the landowners’ lawsuit on the ground that the statute of repose was preempted by the federal statute (CERCLA), but today the Supreme Court – by a vote of seven to two – reversed that decision.

In an opinion by Justice Kennedy, the Court explained that, although there is “considerable common ground” between a statute of limitations and a statute of repose, the two nonetheless have different purposes.  In particular, a statute of repose reflects a judgment that a defendant should not be held liable for his actions at all after a specific amount of time has passed.  The Court observed that Section 9658 repeatedly referred to a “statute of limitations,” and it placed particular emphasis on a 1982 report commissioned by Congress in connection with CERCLA that clearly referred to “statutes of repose as a distinct category” and urged Congress to preempt statutes of repose as well.  Congress’s failure to make that same distinction, along with other aspects of Section 9658, the Court concluded, indicated that it did not intend for Section 9658 to also preempt statutes of repose.

Four Justices – Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts – joined all of Justice Kennedy’s opinion with the exception of Part II-D, a brief section which indicated that the Court’s holding was also consistent with the “presumption against preemption” – the principle that courts should construe express preemption statutes narrowly.

Justice Ginsburg dissented, joined by Justice Breyer.  Although brief, her dissenting opinion does not pull any punches:  she contends that the Court’s decision today “allows those responsible for environmental contamination, if they are located in the still small number of States with repose periods, to escape liability for the devastating harm they cause” and “gives contaminators an incentive to conceal the hazards they have created until the repose period has run its full course.”

Recommended Citation: Amy Howe, Quick take: No preemption for state statutes of repose, SCOTUSblog (Jun. 9, 2014, 11:40 AM),