How Much Circumstantial Evidence Is Enough To Establish Liability? More Than Just Proximity and a Bad Name

Sometimes, good lawyering does matter. When DVL found PCBs on its property in Fort Edward, New York, and when it looked up and realized that GE had operated a manufacturing facility which utilized PCBs “almost adjacent” to DVL’s property, DVL and its attorneys may have thought that they had a slam dunk case on liability. Not so fast. Last week, in DVL v. General Electric, Judge Lawrence Kahn awarded GE summary judgment on liability, because DVL had failed to provide even enough evidence of GE’s liability to survive summary judgment. 

DVL did have more than just GE’s proximity on its side. The types of PCB Aroclors used by GE at its facility were the same as were found at the DVL property. There was contamination on GE’s property. However, GE denied disposing of its contamination on DVL’s property, DVL never saw any GE capacitors on its property, and groundwater wells installed by GE on DVL property to determine if contaminated groundwater had migrated off of GE’s property were non-detect for PCBs. 

Unfortunately for DVL, that was the limit of its evidence. It did obtain a declaration from James Ludlam, an employee of the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, who clearly is no fan of GE, and who stated that GE wastes were at the DVL property. However, DVL did not identify Mr. Ludlam as an expert and Mr. Ludlam had no personal knowledge that GE disposed of anything at the Site. Judge Kahn ruled that DVL was improperly trying to parlay a lay witness into an undisclosed expert witness and struck Mr. Ludlam’s declarations. 

Judge Kahn agreed that liability under CERCLA can be based solely on circumstantial evidence, “especially where the passage of time has made direct evidence difficult or impossible to obtain.” Nonetheless, he concluded that the circumstantial evidence proffered by DVL was not enough to establish its prima facie case. DVL’s case was basically that GE manufactured the types of PCBs found at the DVL property and that its historical disposal practices were, shall we say, messy. Judge Kahn concluded that this was not enough to establish that GE’s wastes had been disposed of at the DVL property. 

Evidence that merely “presents probabilities rather than proof,” “relies upon a collection of facts that could be summarized as ’if it is there, it must be theirs,’” or is “vague and imprecise, of questionable reliability, and therefore not sufficiently probative to create an issue for trial” is insufficient to hold a party liable under CERCLA. 

I think that the decision in DVL v. GE is probably correct. However, it’s hard not to be left with a nagging feeling that the PCBs probably were from the GE facility and that DVL was not well-served by its lawyers. DVL clearly did some looking, because they had a declaration from someone who used to play in the area.  However, were there really no former employees of GE or employees of any waste handlers of GE who could have testified? How about more sophisticated analytical work that would have not merely confirmed that the PCBs were the same Aroclors as used by GE, but were somehow fingerprinted as being the same as the PCBs found in the soil at the GE site? 

If this case stands for anything, it’s that the details matter; the actual evidence matters.

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