The US Supreme Court has upheld North Carolina's limits on how long people have to file pollution-related lawsuits.
The case involved pollution connected with a CTS Corp. manufacturing plant in Asheville. But the decision undercut families trying to sue over groundwater pollution at Camp Lejeune.
John Korzen directs the Appellate Advocacy Clinic at Wake Forest University Law School. He represents some of the families challenging CTS. Korzen said North Carolina's statute of repose starts the clock at the last moment a business pollutes or sells property. Residents have a limited window in which to file a lawsuit.
“So, for example, in North Carolina, there's a 10 year limit,” said Korzen. “Your cancer might not have even been diagnosed within 10 years, but under that 10 year time-period, you would be out of luck.”
Supporters of the Supreme Court decision say the decision protects businesses from being indefinitely vulnerable to lawsuits.
Federal law is less strict with time limits for pollution suits; the clock doesn’t start running until a plaintiff learns of the country’s injury. Still, the Supreme Court decided the federal standard didn’t trump North Carolina’s statute of repose. The court upheld the decision, 7-to-2.
Korzen said he agrees with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's dissenting opinion.
“The majority, we think, creates an incentive for polluters to hide toxic wastes, to avoid accountability,” he said. “So the incentive is to do nothing and hope the 10 years runs, in other words.”
The CTS case was centered on property damage. But Korzen says North Carolina has made exceptions to the statute of repose in cases involving "latent disease". He said the decades-old Camp Lejeune case might still be able to move forward through appellate courts on these grounds.