Supreme Court Decides CTS Corp. vs. Waldburger

States’ statutes of limitations comes under question.

This week, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an opinion in the case of CTS Corp. vs. Waldburger. The decision dealt with whether the federal Superfund law’s statute of limitations trumps North Carolina’s statute of repose. In an uncharacteristically short opinion, the court held that it does not.

Defendant CTS’s contaminated property which it sold and which was then resold to the plaintiffs. The plaintiffs sued under the federal Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (the Superfund statute or CERCLA).   CERCLA’s statute of limitations states that if there is a state statute of limitations that begins to run before the federal limitations period begins, then the typically long federal period (which includes a provision that does not “start the clock” until the wrong was “discovered”) to bring suit  governs.

North Carolina has what’s called a “statute of repose” which, in this case, lapsed in 1997, 14 years before the plaintiffs discovered their injuries and filed suit.

It is easy to miss the difference between statutes of limitations and repose. Both relate to the passage of time and barring of lawsuits. A statute of limitation runs from when a plaintiff is injured (or in some cases, when the plaintiff discovers the injury) – when the claim “accrues” and is intended to spur plaintiffs to not sleep on their claims.

A statute of repose, on the other hand, puts an outer limit on the right to bring a civil action which is calculated from the date of the last culpable act or omission by the defendant. A statute of repose can expire before the plaintiff has been injured. Its goal is not intended to spur lawsuits but to give defendants certainty as to when they cannot be sued.  A statute of limitations may be tolled by defendant wrongdoing, while a statute of repose may not.

The Supreme Court decided that where Congress repeatedly said “statute of limitations” that’s what it meant and held that the North Carolina statute of repose applied to bar the suit.

Michigan’s statute of limitations (Part 201) for recovery of response activity costs and natural resources damages parallels CERCLA and is within six years of initiation of the remedial action or for recovery of response activity costs either during the response activity or within three years after completion of all response activity and so a claim under Michigan’s Part 201 will not likely be impacted by this decision. However, claims for personal injury, nuisance, trespass, negligence or other common law theories might be.

For example, a negligence claim has a statute of limitation of three years which accrues and begins to run when the wrong was done, regardless of the time when damage results. In 2007, the Michigan Supreme Court, in Trentadue vs. Buckler Automatic Lawn Sprinkler Co., held that Michigan did not have a “discovery rule” to toll the statute of limitations in personal injury cases except in a few very narrow circumstances specifically spelled out by the Legislature. That may make the federal discovery rule all the more important in cases with tort claims.

Will states amend their environmental laws to include statutes of repose to avoid the federal discovery rule and longer statute of limitations for environmental and personal injury claims? Perhaps, but given the length of time Michigan has had its statute of limitations, that seems unlikely to me.