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Justices: City can proceed with ELA claim

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The Indiana Supreme Court held that the city of South Bend's claim under the Environmental Legal Action statute can continue because the statute of limitations hadn't run out. The high court did reverse summary judgment in favor of the city in its torts claims against a company because the statute of limitations bars the common law claims for environmental damage.

The Supreme Court issued a 32-page, unanimous decision Thursday in Cooper Industries, et al. v. City of South Bend, et al., No. 49S04-0711-CV-541. At issue was whether Cooper could be held liable for South Bend's claims of negligence, private nuisance, trespass, public nuisance, and an environmental legal action under Indiana Code Section 13-30-9-2 after discovering land it purchased that housed Studebaker manufacturing sites was contaminated. It discovered the contamination in the late 1980s. Through a series of acquisitions and mergers, Cooper Industries obtained the assets of Studebaker.

The city filed suit in March 2003. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of South Bend on the issue of successorship, the city's common law claims, and that the ELA claim was timely because the city filed it less than six years after the ELA statute became effective. The Indiana Court of Appeals reversed, holding the 6-year statute of limitations barred all the claims.

The high court reversed the grant of summary judgment in favor of South Bend's common law claims, ruling the claims accrued more than six years before they were filed.

But South Bend can proceed with its ELA claim because it can be a plaintiff under the ELA and the addition of the ELA to current code created a new action, wrote Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard. Since a new action was created, no cause of action could have existed before its effective date. South Bend's claims under the ELA couldn't have been brought before the action was added on Feb. 28, 1998. Adopting the six-year statute of limitations for this case, South Bend fell within the limits by filing its action March 19, 2003.

The Supreme Court also affirmed Cooper holds the corporate liability for surviving claims as a result of Studebaker's actions. There is sufficient evidence to support the 1967 transaction between Studebaker and Worthington, to form Studebaker-Worthington, constituted a de facto merger such that Cooper may be held to answer South Bend's claims, wrote Chief Justice Shepard. The trial court was also correct to find the 1967 transaction was a mere continuation of the earlier corporate forms.

Even though Cooper argues Delaware law should control because all of the acquiring entities were Delaware corporations, the Supreme Court ruled Indiana law applies because the claim is about property damage which happened in Indiana. The law of the place of the wrong occurred governs, wrote the chief justice.

The Supreme Court remanded for further proceedings on the merits of the city's ELA claim.

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