There are only two permissible answers to this question:
- I don’t know.
I was reminded of this reality in reading the decision issued earlier this month in Solutia v. McWane, in which Chief Magistrate Judge Greene of the Northern District of Alabama held that a party which incurs response costs pursuant to a consent decree or administrative order may not bring an action for cost recovery under § 107 of CERCLA and is instead limited to a contribution action under § 113 of CERCLA.
For those of our readers who are either masochists or do Superfund law for a living and thus have to keep up with this stuff, the decision is worth reading; it’s a useful summary of the post-Atlantic Research, post-Aviall case law. At bottom, the decision is a reasonable, practical result. Why should the nature of a private party’s right of action depend on whether the party did the cleanup itself or instead reimbursed the government for costs incurred pursuant to a government-led cleanup?
I will say that it’s not obvious to me that the Supreme Court would agree, were it to hear the case, simply because the Supreme Court has appeared to be so fixated on the traditional common law understanding of the nature of contribution as the right of a contribution plaintiff to receive a payment from a third party defendant when the contribution plaintiff has paid to the original plaintiff more than its fair share of a common liability. Direct response costs don’t fit neatly into that traditional contribution model. However, it’s probably a moot point, because it is hard to picture this issue getting to the Supreme Court. I expect the justices to conclude that they’ve heard enough of these cases by now.
We’re still left with my original question. Why is it that 30 years after CERCLA was passed and 24 years after the SARA amendments, the nature of third party claims still isn’t clear? Because CERCLA is incomprehensible, that’s why.