Court rules against homeowners in toxic water case

Posted June 9, 2014

Lejeune water, contaminated water, tainted water

— The Supreme Court ruled Monday that a group of homeowners in North Carolina can't sue a company that contaminated their drinking water decades ago because a state deadline has lapsed, a decision that could prevent thousands of other property owners in similar cases from recovering damages after being exposed to toxic waste.

In a 7-2 decision, the justices said state law strictly bars any lawsuit brought more than 10 years after the contamination occurred — even if residents did not realize their water was polluted until years later.

The high court reversed a lower court ruling that said federal environmental laws should trump the state law and allow the lawsuit against electronics manufacturer CTS Corp. to proceed.

The decision is a setback for the families of several thousand former North Carolina-based Marines suing the federal government in a separate case for exposing them to contaminated drinking water over several decades at Camp Lejeune. The government is relying on the same state law to avoid liability. That case is currently pending at the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta.

"I am extremely disappointed in today's Supreme Court decision," U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan said in a statement. "Not only does it prevent the claims of North Carolina residents harmed by contamination from CTS, but I am concerned that it places yet another obstacle before the victims of water contamination at Camp Lejeune who have fought for so many years to obtain justice."

The ruling on Monday involves property owners living on land where CTS used to make electronics equipment until it sold the property in 1987. It wasn't until 2009 that residents discovered their well water contained chemicals that can cause numerous health problems including cancers, reproductive disorders and birth defects.

North Carolina has a "statute of repose" that ends a plaintiff's right to seek damages to property more than 10 years after the last act of contamination occurred. The property owners argued that their claims were still valid under federal environmental laws, which give victims two years to sue from the date they discover what caused their illness.

Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said Congress did not intend to pre-empt statutes of repose. He said federal environmental laws only pre-empt more traditional statutes of limitation, where the clock starts running at the time of the injury.

"The case for federal pre-emption is particularly weak where Congress has indicated its awareness of the operation of state law in a field of federal interest, and has nonetheless decided to stand by both concepts and to tolerate whatever tension there is between them," Kennedy said.

In dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said Congress was concerned about state statutes that "deprive plaintiffs of their day in court." That concern is apparent in the case of diseases like cancer that take years to develop before a victim understands the cause, she said.

Ginsburg said the majority's decision "gives contaminators an incentive to conceal the hazards they have created until the repose period has run its full course." She was joined in dissent by Justice Stephen Breyer.

Only four states other than North Carolina have statutes that place a similar time limit on property lawsuits: Connecticut (3 years), Kansas (10 years), Oregon (10 years) and Alabama (20 years).

At Camp Lejeune, health officials estimate as many as 1 million people may have been exposed to tainted groundwater over several decades. In 2012, President Barack Obama signed a bill into law providing health benefits to Marines and family members exposed to the water from 1957 to 1987.


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  • JustOneGodLessThanU Jun 12, 2014

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    Your use of the term "intelligence" would normally imply that you have done research into the pollution and sickness that Fracking has caused at nearly every place that it has been implemented.

    But, in your case, it doesn't.

    Does this "intelligence" also tell you to ignore 97% of Climate Scientists when they say that man is causing global climate change?

    Are our dictionaries just different?

  • davidhartman Jun 9, 2014

    View quoted thread

    Yes, it is to those with the intelligence to understand the issues as opposed to simply reacting based upon baseless assumptions and vapid extrapolations.

  • WralCensorsAreBias Jun 9, 2014

    Of course the court rules against the people. They always do.

  • tracmister Jun 9, 2014

    Fracking in North Carolina is not sounding so good now, is it.

  • "Screen Name-8/20" Jun 9, 2014

    View quoted thread


    This was done in the name of greed; not for anyone's convenience.

  • BE Jun 9, 2014

    Is there a time limit on how long folks will be sick? Regardless of some mumbo jumbo time limit, this seems to be a decision that can't be justified from a moral values standpoint. Big business wins again. What's good for General Bull Moose is good for the USA.

  • Christopher Rose Jun 9, 2014
    user avatar

    But man we can approve the fracking process to create even more of this kind of contamination overnight! Lets see if this same crowd will act to fast when the people in Lee and Chatham counties have flaming water!

  • Gene Stoeckley Jun 9, 2014
    user avatar

    That is wrong on so many levels.

  • Michael Hart Jun 9, 2014
    user avatar

    so..... the government drags it heels to determine cause, just enough to let the repose thoughtful

  • wlbbjb Jun 9, 2014

    "Millions of people are adversely affected, not just a group of homeowners." So you think it's OK to poison a few people in the interest of big business. That's the kind of thinking that keeps a whole lot of people awake at night.