Spill Act Has No Statute of Limitations

Morristown Associates v. Grant Oil Co., 220 N.J. 360 (2015).  The New Jersey Spill Compensation and Control Act, konwn as the “Spill Act,” allows parties who clean up contamination to seek contribution from others for those cleanup costs.  N.J.S.A. 58:10-23.11f(a)(2)(a).  But the Spill Act does not contain a statute of limitations for such claims.  In this case, the Law Division granted motions for summary judgment by defendants who successfully argued that the general six-year statute of limitations for injuries to real property, N.J.S.A. 2A:14-1, governed contribution claims under the Spill Act.  The Appellate Division affirmed in a published opinion.  432 N.J. Super. 287 (App. Div. 2013).  The Supreme Court granted review and, in a unanimous opinion by Justice LaVecchia, reversed the courts below.  The Supreme Court concluded that the Spill Act has no statute of limitations for these claims.

Justice LaVecchia recounted in detail the background, history, and purposes of the Spill Act, including a trip through various statutory amendments.  Ultimately, however, she focused on language in N.J.S.A. 58:10-23.11f(a)(2)(a) that states that “the contribution defendant shall have only the defenses to liability available to parties pursuant to [N.J.S.A. 58:10-23.11(g)(d)].”  That section lists only a few defenses: “an act or omission caused solely by war, sabotage, or God.”  Thus, the plain “language of the statute expressly restricting the defenses available under the Spill Act provides significant support for a conclusion that no statute of limitations applies.”  Unlike in cases such as Montells v. Haynes, 133 N.J. 282 (1993), where the Court incorporated the general statute of limitations into the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“LAD”) because the LAD was silent as to the limitations issue, Justice LaVecchia concluded that the statutory language of the Spill Act did not represent legislative silence about the statute of limitations in this context.  Rather, the language excluded any statute of limitations defense because it was not among the defenses expressly authorized in the Spill Act.

Moreover, Justice LaVecchia stated, the Court’s conclusion supports the “a decades-long understanding” that the Spill Act “is remedial legislation designed to cast a wide net” over parties potentially responsible for the discharge of hazardous substances.  The Legislature could not have intended its intent to be “frustrated by the imposition of a general and prior enacted, but unreferenced, statute of limitations,” especially since the Legislature had included a statute of limitations elsewhere in the Spill Act, which shows that the Legislature knew how to do that.  Its decision not to include a statute of limitations in this context would not be overriden by the Court.

Finally, although the statutory language was clear, Justice LaVecchia observed that the legislative history buttressed the Court’s interpretation.  “Most notably, in amending the Spill Act in 1979, the Legislature deleted the aspect of subsection (d) of the liability section providing that persons, other than owners or operators of major facilities or vessels, ‘shall have available to him any defense authorized by common or statutory law.'”  That evidenced “a specific legislative intent to eliminate” defenses other than those listed in N.J.S.A. 58:10-23.11(g)(d).  Accordingly, the Court reversed and remanded for further proceedings.