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Courts Prevent the New Jersey Spill Act from Leaking

In Morristown Assoc. v. Grant Oil Co., Docket No. A-0313-11T3 (App. Div. Nov. 17, 2015), the Appellate Division returned to a matter concerning the New Jersey Spill Compensation and Control Act (“Spill Act”).  Morristown Associates, the plaintiff, sought contribution from potentially responsible parties (“PRPs”) for costs associated with the cleanup and removal of fuel oil contamination in and around Plaza Cleaners, a dry cleaning business located at the plaintiff’s shopping center, known as Morristown Plaza.  The defendants were various heating oil companies that allegedly delivered fuel to Plaza Cleaners between 1988 and 2003.

The sole issue before the Supreme Court was whether the general six-year statute of limitations for damage to property applies to a private claim for contribution pursuant to the Spill Act.  The Supreme Court held that the statute of limitations did not apply and remanded the case back to the Appellate Division.  The Court’s decision avoided the grim prospect of PRPs escaping liability if they were not brought into the case within six years from when the contamination occurred.  Plaintiffs do not always name all PRPs immediately after the subject property becomes contaminated because some material facts tend not to be readily known.  For example, it may take years to even discover the existence of contamination, not to mention the identity of all PRPs.  Fortunately, the Court maintained the “longstanding view . . . that the Spill Act is remedial legislation intended to cast a wide net over those responsible for hazardous substances and their discharge on the land and waters of this state.”  Morristown Assocs. v. Grant Oil Co., 220 N.J. 360, 383 (N.J. 2015). 

The Appellate Division considered the remaining issues, which namely included whether, in order to be held liable for the groundwater contamination, the oil company defendants needed notice that the pipes leading to Plaza Cleaners’ underground storage tank were deteriorating.  The Court found that the Spill Act does not contain any particular notice requirement; instead, a party seeking contribution must show a “nexus or reasonable link between the discharge, the putative discharger, and the contamination at the specifically damaged site.”  Morristown Assoc. v. Grant Oil Co., Docket No. A-0313-11T3 (App. Div. Nov. 17, 2015) (internal quotations omitted).  Ultimately, whether Morristown Associates had established a nexus between each oil company defendant and the contamination by a preponderance of the evidence was a question for the trial court. 

In dismissing the defendants’ attempt to escape liability by the proposed statute of limitations and notice requirement defenses, the Supreme Court and Appellate Division, respectively, preserved the letter and spirit of the Spill Act and avoided creating a more stringent burden on plaintiffs seeking contribution.

Lieberman Blecher & Sinkevich’s attorneys have extensive experience with Spill Act cases and have worked for many years to ensure the best results for our clients.

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