ILNews

Court rules on environmental cleanup case

Jennifer Nelson
January 1, 2008
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The Indiana Supreme Court ruled yesterday that the statute of limitations on a claim for contribution toward cleanup costs doesn't begin until the owner is ordered to clean up the property, regardless of whether the owner should have known about the contamination earlier.

The issue in Richard U. Pflanz and Delores J. Pflanz v. Merrill Foster, individually, Merrill Foster d/b/a/ Friendly Foster's Service, and Sunoco Inc. (R&M),  No. 36S01-0710-CV-425, is when the 10-year statute of limitations began on a claim for contribution toward environmental cleanup costs.

Richard and Delores Pflanz bought a former service station from Merrill Foster, who told them there were underground storage tanks of petroleum, but they were not in use and were closed. The Pflanzes opened a tire shop, but later sold the business and leased the property to a third-party.

The Pflanzes discovered in 2001 the tanks remained open and were leaking petroleum and spent more than $100,000 in cleanup costs. They filed a complaint in December 2004 against Foster and Sunoco seeking a determination of liability relating to the environmental contamination, damages under theories of waste, negligence, and stigma, contribution for cleanup costs pursuant to the Underground Storage Tanks Act (USTA), and declaratory relief from future anticipated cleanup costs.

Foster moved to dismiss the claim on the grounds the complaint was barred by the statute of limitations; the trial court dismissed the claim as well as another filed by the Pflanzes on similar grounds.

The Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed, finding the Pflanzes should have tested the property for contamination once Indiana enacted the USTA in 1987 and amended it in 1991, so the statute of limitations began in 1991.

The Indiana Supreme Court decided the statute of limitations on the contribution claim didn't begin to accrue until after the Pflanzes were ordered to clean up the property. Parties who bring contribution claims must wait until the obligation to pay is incurred or otherwise the claim lacks the essential damage element, wrote Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard. As such, when IDEM ordered the Pflanzes to clean up the land in 2001, the claim was within the 10-year statute of limitation.

The statute of limitations of stigma damage claims cannot start until after the claimant has incurred real damage - diminution in property value despite cleanup because future buyers will worry about future cleanup costs. The claim for stigma damages also fell within the statute of limitations, wrote the chief justice.

On the Pflanzes waste and negligence claims, which are governed by a six-year statute of limitations, the Indiana Supreme Court remanded the issue for further examination to determine when the Pflanzes should have known about the environmental issues. The Pflanzes filed these claims, saying they were injured when they purchased the property because Foster fraudulently misrepresented the land; Foster argued the Pflanzes should have investigated the property after the adoption of the USTA legislation.

"We cannot accept the trial court's holding that, as a matter of law, the passage of the USTA automatically put landowners on notice that they should inspect and monitor any underground storage tanks on their property even if, taking the Pflanzes' allegations as true, the former property owners had assured them the tanks were closed and not in use," wrote Chief Justice Shepard.
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  1. This sure is not what most who value good governance consider the Rule of Law to entail: "In a letter dated March 2, which Brizzi forwarded to IBJ, the commission dismissed the grievance “on grounds that there is not reasonable cause to believe that you are guilty of misconduct.”" Yet two month later reasonable cause does exist? (Or is the commission forging ahead, the need for reasonable belief be damned? -- A seeming violation of the Rules of Profession Ethics on the part of the commission) Could the rule of law theory cause one to believe that an explanation is in order? Could it be that Hoosier attorneys live under Imperial Law (which is also a t-word that rhymes with infamy) in which the Platonic guardians can do no wrong and never owe the plebeian class any explanation for their powerful actions. (Might makes it right?) Could this be a case of politics directing the commission, as celebrated IU Mauer Professor (the late) Patrick Baude warned was happening 20 years ago in his controversial (whisteblowing) ethics lecture on a quite similar topic: http://www.repository.law.indiana.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1498&context=ilj

  2. I have a case presently pending cert review before the SCOTUS that reveals just how Indiana regulates the bar. I have been denied licensure for life for holding the wrong views and questioning the grand inquisitors as to their duties as to state and federal constitutional due process. True story: https://www.scribd.com/doc/299040839/2016Petitionforcert-to-SCOTUS Shorter, Amici brief serving to frame issue as misuse of govt licensure: https://www.scribd.com/doc/312841269/Thomas-More-Society-Amicus-Brown-v-Ind-Bd-of-Law-Examiners

  3. Here's an idea...how about we MORE heavily regulate the law schools to reduce the surplus of graduates, driving starting salaries up for those new grads, so that we can all pay our insane amount of student loans off in a reasonable amount of time and then be able to afford to do pro bono & low-fee work? I've got friends in other industries, radiology for example, and their schools accept a very limited number of students so there will never be a glut of new grads and everyone's pay stays high. For example, my radiologist friend's school accepted just six new students per year.

  4. I totally agree with John Smith.

  5. An idea that would harm the public good which is protected by licensing. Might as well abolish doctor and health care professions licensing too. Ridiculous. Unrealistic. Would open the floodgates of mischief and abuse. Even veteranarians are licensed. How has deregulation served the public good in banking, for example? Enough ideology already!

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