Hurray! A District Court Actually Follows Burlington Northern

Recently, I expressed concern that District Courts, which traditionally have never seen a CERCLA plaintiff they didn’t like, would ignore the Supreme Court’s Burlington Northern decision – at least until there is another Supreme Court decision affirming that Supremes really meant the two-part holding in Burlington Northern: (1) divisibility isn’t that hard and (2) parties aren’t liable as arrangers unless they actually intended to dispose of hazardous material. 

Although it shouldn’t be earthshaking, I was therefore encouraged to see last week’s decision in Schiavone v. Northeast Utilities Service Company. In Schiavone, the defendants sold used transformers to a scrap yard. Their policy was to drain the transformers before sale. The Court concluded that there remained a material dispute whether the defendants sent PCB-containing transformers to the site. Nonetheless, the Court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment on the ground that there was no evidence that the defendants intended to dispose of PCBs. Citing to Burlington Northern, the Court stated that:

The defendants’ specific intent to dispose of the transformers themselves is not enough to make them “arrangers” under § 9607(a), even if the defendants had knowledge that oil was in the used transformers when they sold them…. The plaintiffs have produced no evidence that could support a conclusion that the defendants had as a purpose in their dealings with [the scrap yard] disposing of transformer oil containing PCBs.  Consequently, the plaintiffs have not created a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the defendants arranged for the disposal of a hazardous substance.

Sometimes, justice does triumph. I am hopeful that arranger cases where the defendant wasn’t actually intending to dispose of hazardous substances will start to fade away. I remain less optimistic about the divisibility side of Burlington Northern, but one can always hope.

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