A recent decision of the Eastern District of New York in a groundwater contamination action illustrates the fact-sensitive nature of statute of limitations defenses. In Hicksville Water Dist. v. Philips Elecs. N. Am. Corp., 2018 WL 1542670 (E.D.N.Y. Mar. 29, 2018), the court denied a motion to dismiss state tort law claims as time-barred because it could not conclude from the complaint and judicially noticed documents that the plaintiffs knew, outside the limitations window, that the alleged groundwater contamination was “significant enough to justify an immediate or specific remediation effort.”
The defendant operated an electron tube and semiconductor manufacturing facility on Long Island which allegedly released 1,4-Dioxane into the groundwater from 1953 to 1989. The plaintiff, a local water district, filed a complaint under both New York state law and CERCLA seeking $350 million and $600 million in compensatory and punitive damages, respectively.
The court rejected the defendant’s statute of limitations argument as inappropriate “given the fact-specific evaluation” required to determine if and when the plaintiff’s claims accrued. Specifically, the court held that it was “not enough to merely detect contamination.” Rather, “in order for the statute of limitations to run, knowledge of both the dangers of contamination as well as the harmful impact are required.” So the statute of limitations began to accrue when the plaintiff had knowledge of contamination at levels that would prompt a “reasonable water provider” to take “immediate and specific remediation efforts” to address the contamination. Because the plaintiff’s wells were below state regulatory standards for 1,4-Dioxane during the period before the statute of limitations window, the court held that the limitations period had not yet begun and therefore that the claims were not barred.