News Feature | May 14, 2014

Camp LeJeune Water Contamination: Is It Too Late For Victims To Sue?

By Sara Jerome
@sarmje

SCOTUSreg

The Supreme Court is reviewing the merit of rules preventing sick people from suing polluters after state-imposed time limits have passed.

The case, CTS Corp v. Waldburger, will have big implications for Marine families exposed to a cancer-causing chemical at Camp LeJeune, where the drinking water was contaminated by trichloroethylene between 1953 and 1987, ABC News reported. A significant number of base residents developed cancer and other health problems. 

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments on April 23, focusing on "the relationship between state and federal laws and the ticking of the courthouse clock," McClatchy reported

It remains to be seen what the court will decide, but reports said that the justices seemed skeptical of the argument against time limits. "A divided Supreme Court seemed mostly dubious that federal claims for environmental damages can be brought after state deadlines have passed," USA Today reported

The backdrop: CTS, an electronics maker, owned "a manufacturing facility in Asheville, NC.

The land was subsequently sold and developed as a residential subdivision. More than a decade after CTS sold the land, residents began learning that their well water contained carcinogenic chemicals, including trichloroethylene, one of the chemicals also found in Camp Lejeune water," McClatchy reported. 

North Carolina enforces a "statute of repose," meaning parties must sue within a decade of a harmful act. "This is supposed to protect corporations or other property owners from an endless threat of litigation," McClatchy said. 

Jerry Ensminger, a Marine veteran, expressed frustration after the Supreme Court hearing. His 9-year-old daughter, Janey, died of leukemia in 1985.

"What they are saying — that if you're deceitful enough to hide your negligence, then you're going to get rewarded?" he said to USA Today

The stakes are high in this dispute. "A ruling by the Supreme Court in favor of CTS Corporation could create a climate in which corporate polluters would be 'rewarded' for concealment and material misrepresentation of their environmental problems," ABC News reported. 

Industry is watching the case closely, according to an analysis by Katten Muchin Rosenman lawyers. "Corporations and others with potential liability for historic contamination are evaluating the likelihood that the Supreme Court will reverse the [lower court's] decision, and the extent to which reversal of the decision would discourage environmental tort suits for such contamination," the analysis said.

For more on policy, check out Water Online's Regulations and Legislation Solution Center

Image credit: "US Supreme Court," dbking © 2004, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

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