In the recent decision of Cole v. Marathon Oil Corporation, Case No. 16-10642 (E.D. Mich. Oct. 25, 2016), a district court in the Eastern District of Michigan dismissed, in its entirety, a putative class action lawsuit against a refinery operated by the Marathon Oil Corporation (“Marathon”). The court dismissed two of the complaint’s three common law claims as time-barred under Michigan law because the complaint failed to plead a “plausible” basis for the court to infer that the claims accrued within the limitations period, and the third cause of action, strict liability, was dismissed on the ground that it is not an independently-recognized cause of action in Michigan. The decision suggests that, at least under Michigan law, plaintiffs in tort cases must allege more than mere ongoing harm when the allegations on the face of the complaint do not anticipate and provide a plausible basis to avoid an obvious, although unstated, statute of limitations problem.
The case concerned allegedly harmful emissions from an oil refinery. The members of the putative class were nearby residents who brought common law claims against Marathon for nuisance, negligence, and strict liability for what they characterized as the “destruction of their community as a result of the refinery’s operations.” They complained that ongoing emissions from the refinery exposed them to hazardous contaminants, harming their property and threatening them with serious illnesses. Marathon moved to dismiss the complaint under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, and the court granted the motion, dismissing the complaint with prejudice.
The brunt of the court’s analysis was directed at the question of whether the plaintiffs’ nuisance and negligence claims were time-barred under the applicable Michigan statute of limitations. Its analysis was informed by the familiar Twombly pleading standard, which imposes an obligation on the plaintiff to “offer sufficient factual allegations that make the asserted claim plausible on its face.” In reviewing the complaint, the court found it implausible that the plaintiffs’ claims fell within the applicable limitations period. In the court’s view, it was left only to “speculate as to when the period of limitations began to run” because the plaintiffs “failed to identify when their [claims] first accrued.” (emphasis in original). In light of this ambiguity, the court concluded that it had no option but to dismiss the claims as time-barred.
The court also rejected the plaintiffs’ attempt to resurrect their time-barred claims with the oft-vexing “continuing wrongs doctrine.” This doctrine, in its traditional iteration, permits a plaintiff to pursue an otherwise time-barred claim when the harmful conduct is continuing in nature, such as persistent sexual harassment or, as here, the emission of pollutants. Although a minority of jurisdictions recognize the doctrine as a narrow exception to certain statutes of limitations, Michigan’s highest court has flat out rejected it, explaining that the doctrine found no support in the operative language of Michigan’s statute of limitations. The court adopted this reasoning in holding that it was irrelevant to the court’s analysis that Marathon’s purportedly wrongful acts were continuing in nature.
Finally, the court also dismissed the plaintiff’s strict liability claim. The court explained that Michigan had yet to recognize an independent claim for strict liability, and the court was disinclined to fashion such a claim in the absence of any applicable precedent.
While the district court’s decision is likely to be appealed, it nevertheless serves as a powerful demonstration of the statute of limitations defense at an early stage in litigation.