Fourth Circuit: Statute of repose is no bar to hazardous waste-related personal injury claims

In North Carolina, courts have been twice called upon, especially in CTS Corporation v. Waldburger and subsequently Stahle v. CTS Corporation, to interpret the state’s 10-year statute of repose with respect to injuries allegedly stemming from the release of hazardous substances.

In Waldburger v. CTS Corp., 723 F.3d 434 (2013), the operator had run a plant where quantities of chemicals had been stored. The operator sold the facility in 1987, and the landowners subsequently purchased portions of the land. In 2009, the landowners allegedly learned that their well water was contaminated by carcinogenic solvents. The court of appeals held that the discovery rule under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Liability, and Compensation Act (CERCLA), 42 U.S.C.S. § 9658, preempted the 10-year limitations period under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 1-52(16), which was properly characterized as a statute of repose. Although § 9658 did not mention statutes of repose, it applied to repose limitations such as North Carolina's. Given the inconsistent manner in which "statute of limitations" had been used, it was probable that Congress intended § 9658 to apply to the type of limitation found in § 1-52(16). Because § 9658 was ambiguous and CERCLA was remedial in nature, a finding of preemption was warranted.

The Supreme Court however, found that although § 9658 preempted the state’s statutes of limitation, it did not preempt the statutes of repose. Statutes of limitations and statutes of repose had different objectives, and while Congress' use of only the term “statute of limitations” in § 9658 was not dispositive, other features of the statutory text supported the exclusion of statutes of repose from § 9658. CTS Corp. v. Waldburger, 134 S. Ct. 2175 (2014).

Recently, in Stahle v. CTS Corp., No. 15-1001, 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 3861, where Stahle concentrated upon CTS’ liability stemming from the discharge of toxic solvents into a nearby stream to which allegedly Stahle was exposed, the issue raised was whether that 10-year statute of repose applied to Stahle's claim that childhood exposure to water negligently contaminated by CTS years ago caused him leukemia. The Fourth Circuit held that the statute of repose was directed at certain personal injury claims and had not been expressly expanded to include disease. Therefore, the North Carolina Supreme Court would not consider that the statute be applicable to claims arising out of disease. It applied only to latent injuries, and North Carolina law clearly established that a disease was not a latent injury.

Although CTS prevailed with its argument that the statute of repose barred claims against it in the case of a property damage, it was not so fortunate enough in the latter personal injury case.


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