Property owners who suffer damages as a result of contamination must be aware of time limitations to recover damages.   A New Jersey appellate court recently upheld the rule that, unlike recovery of cleanup costs in contribution actions under the New Jersey Spill Compensation and Control Act, recovery of other damages under tort theories, such as lost sales, lost rental values and the like, remain subject to the six-year statute of limitations.  In 320 Assocs., LLC v. New Jersey Natural Gas Co., (A-1831-16T2) (June 29, 2018), the Appellate Division, upheld a lower court’s decision dismissing Plaintiff’s claims for money damages as untimely.

The owner of commercial property located near a New Jersey Natural Gas property sued the gas company for damages resulting from coal tar that had migrated onto the owner’s property.  The owner asserted common law claims against the gas company for negligence, per se negligence, strict liability, nuisance and trespass.  It sought damages for a lost sale and lost rental value as well as an order mandating the gas company to cleanup up both properties.

The Appellate Division determined that, since Plaintiff discovered the contamination in 2008, the six year statute of limitations barred all but one claim.  Only the nuisance survived for further fact finding because nuisance is considered ongoing so long as the nuisance can be abated.

The case is a reminder that property owners with common law claims need to be aware that, while environmental statutes permit claims for cleanup and cleanup costs without time limitations, other damages are not recoverable if they are asserted after the statutory limitations periods.

Earlier this week, the New Jersey Supreme Court clarified in NL Industries, Inc. v. State of New Jersey, (A-44-15) (March 27, 2017), that the State of New Jersey retains its sovereign immunity under the New Jersey Spill Compensation and Control Act (Spill Act), N.J.S.A. 58:10-23.11 to 23.24, for discharges of hazardous substances that occurred prior to the 1977 enactment of that law.

In a Spill Act contribution claim against the State and several private parties for the costs to remediate parts of the Raritan Bay impacted by contaminated slag used in the early-1970s to construct a seawall, NL Industries alleged that the State was a liable “person” under the Spill Act and subject to a private party contribution claim.  The State had approved the construction of the seawall and the disposal of the contaminated slag in the Raritan Bay.

When the Spill Act was adopted in 1977, it created a Spill Fund to pay for the clean-up of hazardous substances discharged by “any person” after the law was enacted.  The Spill Act defined “person” to include the State.  In 1979, the Legislature amended the Spill Act to allow the State, but not private parties, to use the Spill Fund to remediate discharges that occurred prior to the enactment of the Spill Act.  In 1991, the Spill Act was amended again, imposing strict liability on any responsible “person” for cleanup costs “no matter by whom incurred,” and allowing private party contribution claims to recover costs from any such “person,” including for pre-Spill Act discharges.  NL Industries argued that these amendments worked together to allow private party contribution claims against the State for pre-Spill Act discharges.  NL Industries also agreed with the trial court’s conclusion that the State’s sovereign immunity for pre-Spill Act discharges was waived based on the Supreme Court’s decision in Department of Environmental Protection v. Ventron Corp., 94 N.J. 473 (1983), which applied Spill Act liability retroactively for pre-Spill Act discharges.

The Court rejected NL Industries’ argument and the trial court’s reliance on Ventron.  The Court began its analysis by affirming that the State’s sovereign immunity can be waived only by a clear and unambiguous expression of legislative intent.  While the Court acknowledged that it may be possible to construe the language of the 1991 amendments to the Spill Act to allow for contribution claims against the State for pre-Spill Act discharges, the Court explained that this was not enough.  Neither the 1991 amendments, nor any other provision of the Spill Act, contained the deliberate, clear and unambiguous expression by the Legislature required to strip the State of its sovereign immunity for pre-Spill Act discharges.  The Court also clarified that the retroactive application of the Spill Act in Ventron applied narrowly to only pre-Spill Act discharges that the State remediated with Spill Fund monies and sought reimbursement for from private parties, leaving the State’s sovereign immunity protection from liability for its own pre-Spill Act discharges in place.

Justice Albin, in his dissent from the Court’s majority opinion, wrote that the Court’s interpretation of the Spill Act “leads to the absurd result” of a private party being held on the hook for the entire cost to clean-up a pre-Spill Act discharge even when the State and the private party are both jointly responsible.  Given that discharges of hazardous substances can occur decades before contamination is discovered and that the State can easily be one of many, if not the primary, “person” responsible for pre-1977 discharges, it is worth watching how the Court’s decision impacts a private party’s remediation at such sites now that the State is immune from contributing to the cleanup of pre-Spill Act discharges.

After the NJ Supreme Court Finally Closed the Door on The Statute of Limitations Defense To NJ Spill Act Contribution Claims, Laches Emerges as a Possible Backdoor Defense. 

The Bergen County Superior Court issued a surprise decision this month in 22 Temple Avenue v. Audino, Inc., et al., Docket No. BER-L-9337-14, ruling that NJ’s Spill Compensation and Control Act permits the defense of laches as an affirmative defense to contribution liability.  The decision is inconsistent with the NJ Supreme Court’s 2015 Morristown Associates v. Grant Oil Co., 220 N.J. 360 (2015) ruling, which not only confirmed that there is no statute of limitations time bar to contribution claims, but also confirmed that the universe of defenses available to contribution defendants is limited to only those specifically identified in the Spill Act or permitted by court rule.  The Spill Act does not identify laches – or any equitable defenses – to contribution claims.

Unlike a statute of limitations, which bars claims brought after the expiration of a time period specified by statute, the defense of laches relied upon by the 22 Temple Avenue court is an equitable defense that bars claims when the passage of time renders it unfair to a defendant for the claim to move forward.  This unpublished decision is not only inconsistent with the Morristown Associates decision, but it is also inconsistent with another unpublished decision, Ann Bradley v. Joseph Kovelesky, Docket No. A-0423-14T4, in which the Appellate Division refused to apply the defense of laches to a Spill Act contribution claim.

The Morristown Associates decision had been viewed as bringing finality to the longstanding question of whether a Spill Act contribution claim can be affirmatively time barred.  Yet, the 22 Temple Avenue decision raises the question of whether a backdoor time bar exists to Spill Act contribution claims.

22 Temple Avenue

22 Temple Avenue asserted Spill Act contribution claims against Peter Audino, the former operator of a dry cleaner, for contamination related to those operations.  The court rejected 22 Temple Avenue’s claim for cleanup costs for discharges that occurred from 1989 to 1992 against the then 89-year old Audino, individually, based on the defense of laches.  Notwithstanding the Morristown Associates ruling against a time bar for Spill Act private party contribution actions, the court sought to apply “basic principles of fairness and substantial justice” in the context of 22 Temple Avenue’s claims.

The court’s reliance on Morristown Associates and the 2012 Supreme Court decision in N.J. Dept. Env. Protection v. Dimant, 212 N.J. 153 (2012) in applying the defense of laches to 22 Temple Avenue’s claim is surprising.  The Morristown Associates Court made no mention of the defense of laches or other equitable defenses as an exception to its very clear ruling that the language of the Spill Act contribution provision provides that there are no defenses to a Spill Act private party contribution claim except those that the New Jersey Legislature wrote into the Spill Act or those that are established by court rules under the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court.  The defense of laches is neither written into the Spill Act nor established under the New Jersey court rules.  Indeed, some federal district courts, including NJ, have applied similar reasoning in holding that there are no equitable defenses to a Superfund §107(a) cost recovery claim.

Likewise, the Supreme Court made no mention of the defense of laches in Dimant.  In that matter, the Court refused to find a dry cleaner liable for a discharge because NJDEP could not prove any nexus between drips of PERC to pavement and contamination found in groundwater.  However, the Court projected that where there is liability, equitable factors such as the passage of time disabling the dry cleaner’s ability to defend itself can be considered in allocating damages.  A similar use of equitable considerations has been used by courts in the context of apportionment of Superfund liability.

The 22 Temple Avenue decision does not undo the Morristown Associates holding that there is no statute of limitations time bar to private party Spill Act contribution claims.  This decision does however raise the question as to whether lower courts are looking to create an equitable backdoor of laches to bar such claims.

After months of controversy, public comments, response to public comments, motions to intervene, amicus briefs, oral arguments, editorials and a sustained flurry of activity in social media, the decision we have been waiting for is here – Judge Michael J. Hogan granted NJDEP’s motion to approve the consent judgement with ExxonMobil that settles out for $225 million the State’s original $8.9 billion claimed for natural resource damages.

Based on initial reports on the ruling, the court found that the settlement amount was a reasonable compromise in light of the risks still attached to the complex and costly litigation that has lasted more than a decade, including the risk of a number of appeals preserved by ExxonMobil through the years. Initial reports also indicate that the court found that NJDEP’s damages estimate was rational and the settlement was consistent with the Spill Act and with the public interest.

It can be fully expected that the coalition of environmental groups and State Senator Raymond Lesniak, who have been leading the charge in challenging the settlement as a dirty deal and woefully inadequate, will strongly disagree with the ruling and take steps to overturn it.

Amicus Curiae Briefs Due Today; Oral Argument on Motion to Approve Settlement Rescheduled

After denying their motions to intervene last week (see our coverage here), Judge Hogan issued a Scheduling Order that sets today as the deadline for the eight environmental organizations and State Senator Lesniak (D-Union) to file their amicus curiae briefs.  NJDEP and Exxon Mobil must file their response briefs by the end of the week at noon on Friday, July 24, 2015.

Oral argument on the motion to approve the proposed settlement, which was previously scheduled for tomorrow, will now be held Thursday, July 30, 2015.  Judge Hogan is allowing the amici to participate in the oral argument if they choose to, which we should all expect at this point.

An amicus curiae, a Latin term that literally means ‘friend of the court,’ is an entity that is not a party to a case, but has an interest in the outcome and files a brief to provide information and arguments to the court and otherwise weigh in on the case.  As a non-party, an amicus curiae does not have a right to appeal the final outcome of a case, which is what the eight environmental groups and Senator Lesniak were ultimately seeking when they filed their motions to intervene.  So, these amicus curiae briefs and next week’s oral argument are their very last opportunity to voice their opposition to the settlement before the judge decides whether to approve it (unless they appeal the denial of the motions to intervene; no word so far on whether they will file an appeal).  Senator Lesniak vowed to file such a brief after his motion to intervene was denied, so we expect to see plenty of activity this week.

Stay tuned for discussions on NJDEP’s response to the more than 16,000 public comments on the settlement, which the judge will likely consider in his evaluation of the proposed settlement, as well as a closer look at natural resource damages and what they actually mean.  And continuing updates on the case’s docket.

UPDATE: After the posting of this blog, the Sierra Club of New Jersey posted a press release announcing that it made the amici filings, along with other environmental groups, earlier today.