A federal court in California has ruled that the state’s community property law does not expose the spouse of the owner/operator of a facility to CERCLA liability. Wells Fargo Bank, N.A. v. Renz, No. 08-2561 (N.D. Cal. 6/9/11). The court rejected plaintiff’s argument that the spouse was a “de facto” owner simply because, under the state law, she shared profits with her deceased husband. The facility, which was a dry-cleaning business, was contaminated with perchloroethylene.

In 2008, plaintiff, the trustee of the trust that owned the property, filed suit under CERCLA, seeking to recover cleanup costs against several parties, including the estate and spouse of the prior facility operator. Plaintiff argued that the spouse was a “covered person” under CERCLA, pursuant to state community property laws. Plaintiff also alleged that the spouse was liable as an owner/operator because she co-signed a lease for the facility.

The court rejected plaintiff’s argument, ruling that legal authority did not support the proposition that defendant’s community property or de facto partnership interest in the facility transformed her into a potentially liable party (PRP) under CERCLA. The court also rejected plaintiff’s arguments that defendant played an active role in running the business and that she became liable as an owner or operator because she co-signed the lease.