Statute limitation laws can prevent people from getting justice.
Milk can go sour, eggs have a shelf life, and meat must be consumed by a date certain. What many people do not know is that justice also can have an expiration date, a statute limitation. A statute limitation is a time limit the law imposes on a case. After the statute limitation expires, the case cannot be tried in the courts. The statute limitation ls original purpose were to encourage injured persons to bring their claims in a timely manner The limitations also protect defendants from having to defend claims when evidence may be difficult to collect. Unfortunately, the law can also have harsh consequences for people seeking justice.
Asheville Manufacturer Used Toxic Chemical
From the 1950’s until 1986, Asheville was home to a CTS manufacturing complex in the south city limits off Mills Gap Road. CTS Corporation manufactured electrical components for hearing aids and car parts. In the manufacturing process, CTS used trichloroethylene or TCE as a solvent. TCE is hazardous to both animals and humans. TCE is known to impact the central nervous system, respiratory system, liver and kidneys. Persons who are exposed to TCE are shown to have increased risks from heart defects, Parkinson’s disease, leukemia, kidney cancer, liver disease and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. When CTS closed its Asheville plant, TCE was left in the ground water and in the soil.
Despite this toxin being present on the land, CTS was able to sell the site to developer Richard Greenberg in 1987 for $540,000 along with a promise that the site was environmentally sound. This developer then subdivided the site and sold the properties for residential homes. Meanwhile, occupied older homes were as close as 50 yards to the closed plant’s location. All homes relied on wells (ground water) for their drinking source.
Toxic Chemical Pollution and Damage Difficult to Detect in Timely Manner
For various reasons, the danger at the CTS site remained hidden from neighboring residents. TCE was in the soil and seeping underground. Only a person trained in chemical toxicology and who possessed the specialized equipment to test for TCE would be able to detect it. CTS, meanwhile, represented to property buyersand its neighbors that the land was environmentally safe and posed no threat to human health. Meanwhile, according to a recent story published by the Asheville Citizen Times , the property buyer-developers omitted the pollution existence in their applications for county development permits. TCE takes many years to seep underground into the water supply. The effects from TCE exposure on humans can take additional time to appear. State and federal environmental agencies delayed taking action and were negligent in bringing the problem to the public’s attention.
State and Federal Authorities Slow to Act
The toxic pollution at the CTS site continued to spread and contaminate residents’ drinking water undetected for years. Residents applied pressure and complained to the NC Environment and Natural Resources (NCDENR). Finally, in 1999, NCDENR sampled a spring that supplied water to homes next to the old facility. The results revealed that this drinking water was contaminated with TCE. However, in 2001 and 2006, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPS) found that the site, although contaminated, did not warrant inclusion on the National Priorities List, also known as Superfund. Superfund is the name given to the environmental program established to address abandoned hazardous waste sites. The Superfund designation allows the federal government to compel pollution site cleanup, as well as prioritize sites named to the Superfund list.
Because there was no clean up, the TCE toxin continued to spread underground. In 2007, the EPA found TCE contamination in the drinking water in additional homes, located almost a mile from the CTS plant. Still, no cleanup was initiated, and the pollution spread further. In 2009, the EPA found water contamination at more distant locations along Chapel Hill Church Road, .
In 2011, the EPA finally designated the site as a Superfund site. At this point, residents affected by the contamination retained an attorney and filed suit against CTS for the damage to their home values and personal injuries.
Statute Limitation Law in North Carolina Upheld by US Supreme Court
Unfortunately for North Carolina residents, NC statute limitation laws are unique. These statue limitations are called repose statutes. These place a 10 year time limit on pollution case initiation. Since CTS sold the property in 1986, CTS argued that North Carolina’s limitation barred the resident’s lawsuit. Although the 4th Circuit Appeals Court disagreed, and ruled that federal law preempted North Carolina’s time limitation, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed this decision. The Supreme Court held that the residents’ claims were time barred, and that there lawsuit against CTS would be disallowed.
Justice Ginsberg, in her dissent from the Supreme Court’s majority opinion, predicted that the opinion would only encourage polluters to hide their bad acts until the statue of limitations expired. “Instead of encouraging prompt identification and remediation of toxic contamination before it can kill, the Court’s decision gives contaminators an incentive to conceal the hazards they have created until the repose period has run its full course.”
Meanwhile, the residents living near the old CTS site continue to suffer. In June, 2014, the EPA ordered three families to evacuate their homes because now, in addition to the water pollution, the TCE was seeping up through the soil. This made the air they breathe too toxic to safely occupy the homes. Unfortunately, because justice had an expiration date, these families, nor any other families affected by the TCE contamination, will ever be compensated for their losses and injuries.