A Man’s Home (Or Mall Or Other Business) May Be His Castle — But He Still Has to Provide Access When Contamination Is At Issue

Two recent decision illustrate that PRPs do hold some cards in hazardous waste litigation, particularly if they are willing to be aggressive in investigating the contamination. Both cases demonstrate that “victims” or bystanders can face serious consequences if they do not cooperate with the investigation.

In Carlson v. Ameren Corporation, the plaintiffs had purchased a former manufactured gas plant from Ameren Corporation. They brought suit under RCRA, seeking an injunction requiring that Ameren remediate the property. Ameren filed counterclaims against the Carlsons, alleging that they had refused to cooperate with the cleanup. The question was whether such a lack of cooperation could constitute proof that the owner was “contributing to or has contributed to the handling” of the solid or hazardous waste at issue in the case. The 7th Circuit rule requires “active involvement in handling or storing of materials.” Denying the plaintiffs’ motion to dismiss the counterclaim, the court concluded that “obstruction may be construed as active storage of materials.” 

The Carlsons prevented Ameren from accessing and repairing the land. Furthermore, as a result of their affirmative action in obstructing the repair of the land, the Carlsons are allegedly permitting the continued leaching of hazardous material into the land. As a result, the Carlson’s [sic] may be said to be actively contributing to the condition of the Property.

Voggenthaler v. Maryland Square presents a different situation, but reinforces the lesson that even those probably not otherwise liable need to cooperate. In this case, downgradient property owners had sued a mall owner and a dry cleaner located at the mall, alleging contamination from a PCE release at the dry cleaner. The defendants were clearly liable, but were seeking other deep pockets to contribute to the cleanup. Another mall, the Boulevard Mall, was located across the highway from Maryland Square. That mall contained a Sears store and other automotive uses that could have used, and released, PCE. The original defendants filed a third-party complaint against the Boulevard Mall. They also filed a request for inspection under Rule 34 in order to implement environmental testing on the Boulevard Mall property, intended to provide evidence that there was a separate source of contamination affecting the plaintiffs. When Boulevard Mall refused, Maryland Square filed a motion to compel.

I’ll spare you all of the procedural details; the bottom line is that Magistrate Judge Foley, while acknowledging that the third party claims against Boulevard Mall were weak, allowed the motion to compel. The decision is worth reading and provides an interesting discussion of “fishing expeditions” versus “discovery of relevant and potentially admissible evidence.” In short, the Court refereed what might be called a preliminary battle of the experts and concluded that the Maryland Square expert had made – barely – enough of a case that the Boulevard Mall property might be a source of contamination to justify the testing. Interestingly, Magistrate Judge Foley said that, if he were deciding a summary judgment motion, he would have ruled that Maryland Square’s claims would not survive. However, under “a more lenient discovery standard,” he concluded that Maryland Square had “made a sufficient threshold factual showing to support the proposed testing. 

The lesson for known PRPs? Aggressive efforts to investigate contamination can be a useful sword in litigation. The lesson for others? If the PRPs are acting responsibly, you had better cooperate.

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