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Personal cars fall under federal act exemption

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The billing agent for a central Indiana volunteer fire department can’t bill individuals involved in auto accidents with their personal vehicles for clean-up costs of hazardous substances, according to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals.

In Emergency Services Billing Corp. Inc., individually (and as agent for) agent of Westville Volunteer Fire Department v. Allstate Insurance Co., et al., No. 11-2381, Emergency Services Billing Corp., which is the billing agent for the Westville Volunteer Fire Department, sent invoices itemizing the response costs incurred by the fire department to four individuals involved in separate auto accidents. ESBC believed the individuals and their auto insurers would be liable under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act.

The District Court held that motor vehicles for personal use fall under the “consumer product in consumer use” exception to CERCLA’s definition of facility, and so defendants can’t be charged with the fire department’s costs for responding to the accidents.

The CERCLA allows for clean-up costs to be recovered from owners of a “facility” in which hazardous substances have been released. The CERCLA definition of facility includes motor vehicles, but the definition states a facility does not include “any consumer product in consumer use.”

ESBC argued that the phrase “consumer product” is ambiguous and the courts should defer to how the Environmental Protection Agency has defined the term; defendants maintained any use of tools outside of the statute to define the term is inappropriate.

The 7th Circuit affirmed the District Court’s decision, finding the defendant’s interpretation of “consumer product” to be persuasive.

“CERCLA’s ‘consumer product’ exemption from the term ‘facilities’ cannot reasonably be read to exclude personally-owned, personally-operated motor vehicles,” wrote Judge Joel Flaum. “The language of CERCLA is clear on its face, and a look into CERCLA’s legislative history, the term ‘consumer product’ as it is used in other statutes, and the EPA’s interpretation of the term only confirms our conclusion.”

 

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