The Supreme Court Decision in Burlington Northern: There Are Limits to Liability Under CERCLA

Those of us who have practiced in the Superfund arena for some time know that the government, in those rare cases where it has been forced to litigate, has used the same oral argument in every case: “Good morning, your honor. My name is ______. I represent the government in this action and we win.” Today, the Supreme Court made clear that that the government now needs a new oral argument template.

In Burlington Northern v. United States, the Supreme Court issued two important decisions in one. First, the Court held that a defendant must actually intend its waste to be disposed of before it can be found liable as an arranger under § 107(a)(3) of CERCLA. The facts were these. Shell Oil sold pesticides to Brown & Bryant, Inc., which operated a chemical distribution business. As part of the transfer of pesticides from Shell to B&B, some pesticides were released on the property. There was evidence that Shell knew that releases were a regular part of the transfer process. Both the District Court and Appeals Court concluded that Shell’s knowledge that releases occurred was enough to establish arranger liability.

Noting that CERCLA does not define the term “arrange[e] for”, the Court looked the phrase’s ordinary meaning. Doing so, the Court concluded that liability may attach only where the defendant “takes intentional steps to dispose of a hazardous substance.” The government argued that, because the defendant knew that disposal was the inevitable result of its sale of product to the site owner, the defendant had “intended” disposal to occur. The Court rejected this argument. The Court was very clear: The defendant “must have entered into the sale of [the product] with the intention that at least a portion of the product be disposed during the transfer process.”

The direct holding with respect to Shell will be important in a number of cases and is helpful in setting a fairly bright line on arranger liability. Even beyond the immediate holding, however, I wonder what, if anything, this case means for what is known as transshipment liability. Under section 107(a)(3), a person is liable as an arranger if they

arranged for disposal or treatment … of hazardous substance owned or possessed by such person, by any other party or entity, at any facility or incineration vessel owned or operated by another party…

It has always seemed to me that the plain reading of § 107(a)(3) is that the defendant must have “arranged” for the disposal of the hazardous substances at the site where disposal occurred. In those not uncommon situations where the site operator transshipped the waste – without the generator’s knowledge or consent – the generator should not be liable under CERCLA at the transshipment site, because it did not intend for any disposal at the transshipment site. Given the Supreme Court’s emphasis on what the generator intended, I think that, in the right case, a transshipment generator defendant would stand a pretty good chance of winning, if he or she were willing to litigate the case all the way up to the Supreme Court. 

I hope someone will and I hope I’m right. 

The second holding in Burlington Northern may be of even more practical significance. In it, the Court reversed the Court of Appeals and upheld the District Court’s original divisibility finding with respect to the Burlington Northern Railroad. The District Court used a simple formula based on percentage of the site owned by Burlington Northern and the percentage of time that Burlington Northern leased the land as compared to the total duration of site operations. What’s most significant is that the Court did not even require any significant analysis to uphold the District Court; Justice Stevens’ opinion merely stated that there was evidence that contribution from the railroad parcel to the overall contribution was limited, so that, “[w]ith these background facts in mind, we are persuaded that it was reasonable for the court to use the size of the leased parcel and the duration of the lease as the starting point for its analysis.”

This seems obvious, but is probably a game changer in government Superfund litigation. The overwhelming tenor of lower court opinions has been that the defendant’s burden in a divisibility argument is almost overwhelming and that the burden will be satisfied in the rarest of cases and only upon almost perfect evidence of divisibility. The Supreme Court has made clear that that is simply not the case. Superfund cases are no different than other cases and there is no unstated higher burden of proof. 

Thus, while a district court judge might still be affirmed if he or she concludes that the defendant did not meet its burden of proving divisibility, the real import of the decision is that now district court judges need not fear that they will be automatically reversed if they do conclude that the harm is divisible. Given the standard stated in Burlington Northern, it might go too far to say that most cases will be divisible, but divisibility findings should not be at all rare – and that’s definitely news.

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