The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania issued a decision on an aspect of CERCLA for which it found almost no prior court precedent – the temporal aspect of the term “current owner or operator” – holding that the current owners at the time of suit were not liable for response costs incurred before they took title to the facility. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Department of Environmental Protection v. Trainer Custom Chemical LLC, et al.
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PaDEP) had filed suit against a company and its two owners for recovery of cleanup costs expended by the State in addressing a facility owned by the company. The cleanup had commenced when the facility was owned by another company, and virtually all of the costs for which reimbursement was sought related to electrical power paid for by the PaDEP, which the prior owner of the property had failed to pay. Those costs were incurred more than three years before the defendants (i.e., the current owners) purchased the site. The court held that the defendants were not liable for response costs incurred prior to their purchase of the property – that CERCLA intended that the “current owner or operator” was the owner or operator at the time the response costs were incurred, not the owner or operator at the time the suit was filed.
In its ruling, the court noted that it had found no cases directly on point in the Third Circuit, but that the Ninth Circuit had addressed the issue in California DTSC v. Hearthside Residential Corporation. The Ninth Circuit opinion itself noted the lack of any controlling precedent on the issue, but concluded that using the date of response costs to identify a current owner was consistent with the statute of limitations, which begins with the incurrence of costs, and the intent to foster early settlement. The Pennsylvania court agreed that the Ninth Circuit analysis made “common sense” and reasoned that, while CERCLA is a broad statute, “strict liability is not limitless liability.”
That last point is one that countless sophisticated defendants have tried to make in CERCLA actions. And while the defendants in this case may not have been sophisticated in some of their arguments, they convinced the District Court on the issue central to their monetary liability. Alas, they may now have to also convince the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, as the PaDEP has requested certification for an interlocutory appeal.