The New Jersey Supreme Court has held that claims for contribution under the New Jersey Spill Compensation and Control Act (“Spill Act”) are not governed by a statute of limitations. The Spill Act authorizes parties who have entered into an agreement with the state Department of Environmental Protection to remediate a discharge of hazardous materials to seek contribution from other responsible parties. Morristown Associates v. Grant Oil Co. concerned an action by the owner of a shopping center seeking contribution for the costs of remediating a leak in an underground storage tank used by a cleaning business that is a tenant in the center. The action was brought against several oil companies that provided fuel to the cleaner, as well as the former owner of the cleaning business. The defendants subsequently brought a third-party action against the current owner of the cleaner.
The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of several defendants, on the grounds that the claims against these parties were time-barred. In granting summary judgment, the trial court determined that the general six-year statute of limitations applied to contribution claims under the Spill Act. The trial court’s decision was affirmed by the Appellate Division.
The Supreme Court began its analysis by noting that the language in the Spill Act authorizing contribution claims did not incorporate a statute of limitations. Furthermore, this language stated that a contribution defendant “shall have only the defenses to liability” enumerated under a separate provision of the Spill Act. N.J.S.A. 58:10–23.11f(a)(2)(a) (emphasis added). These defenses consisted of “an act or omission caused solely by war, sabotage, or God, or a combination thereof.” N.J.S.A. 58:10–23.11g(d).
The Court found that under this language, the Legislature did not intend to include a statute of limitations defense for contribution defendants. The Court observed that this interpretation reflected the “longstanding” recognition that the Spill Act was “designed to cast a wide net over those responsible for hazardous substances and their discharge on the land and waters of this state.” The Court determined that the Legislature therefore could not have intended to permit contribution liability to be frustrated by an unreferenced statute of limitations.
The Court also noted that its interpretation was supported by the Spill Act’s legislative history, observing that the Act had been amended to remove language stating that certain persons “shall have available any defense authorized by common or statutory law.” The Court observed that this amendment reflected an intent to eliminate any defenses not expressly set forth in the Spill Act. Having determined that the six-year statute of limitations did not apply to contribution claims under the Spill Act, the Court reversed the Appellate Division’s decision and remanded the matter to the trial court.
By holding that contribution claims under the New Jersey Spill and Contamination Act are not subject to a statute of limitations, the New Jersey Supreme Court’s decision in Morristown Associates raises the potential that parties may be subject to liability for site contamination they have contributed to decades in the past. At the same time, the decision ensures that parties incurring the costs of remediation will be able to seek contribution from as many parties as possible.