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. What a fine article, thank you! I can testify firsthand and by detailed legal reports (at end of this note) as to the dire consequences of rejecting this truth from the fine article above: "The inclusion and expansion of this right [to jury] in Indiana’s Constitution is a clear reflection of our state’s intention to emphasize the importance of every Hoosier’s right to make their case in front of a jury of their peers." Over $20? Every Hoosier? Well then how about when your very vocation is on the line? How about instead of a jury of peers, one faces a bevy of political appointees, mini-czars, who care less about due process of the law than the real czars did? Instead of trial by jury, trial by ideological ordeal run by Orwellian agents? Well that is built into more than a few administrative law committees of the Ind S.Ct., and it is now being weaponized, as is revealed in articles posted at this ezine, to root out post moderns heresies like refusal to stand and pledge allegiance to all things politically correct. My career was burned at the stake for not so saluting, but I think I was just one of the early logs. Due, at least in part, to the removal of the jury from bar admission and bar discipline cases, many more fires will soon be lit. Perhaps one awaits you, dear heretic? Oh, at that Ind. article 12 plank about a remedy at law for every damage done ... ah, well, the founders evidently meant only for those damages done not by the government itself, rabid statists that they were. (Yes, that was sarcasm.) My written reports available here: Denied petition for cert (this time around): http://tinyurl.com/zdmawmw Denied petition for cert (from the 2009 denial and five year banishment): http://tinyurl.com/zcypybh Related, not written by me: Amicus brief: http://tinyurl.com/hvh7qgp

  2. Justice has finally been served. So glad that Dr. Ley can finally sleep peacefully at night knowing the truth has finally come to the surface.

  3. While this right is guaranteed by our Constitution, it has in recent years been hampered by insurance companies, i.e.; the practice of the plaintiff's own insurance company intervening in an action and filing a lien against any proceeds paid to their insured. In essence, causing an additional financial hurdle for a plaintiff to overcome at trial in terms of overall award. In a very real sense an injured party in exercise of their right to trial by jury may be the only party in a cause that would end up with zero compensation.

  4. Why in the world would someone need a person to correct a transcript when a realtime court reporter could provide them with a transcript (rough draft) immediately?

  5. This article proved very enlightening. Right ahead of sitting the LSAT for the first time, I felt a sense of relief that a score of 141 was admitted to an Indiana Law School and did well under unique circumstances. While my GPA is currently 3.91 I fear standardized testing and hope that I too will get a good enough grade for acceptance here at home. Thanks so much for this informative post.

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