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7th Circuit reinstates suit to recoup environmental cleanup costs

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Finding the District Court erred in dismissing several claims made by the trustees of a fund to oversee cleanup of a contaminated site, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals is allowing the lawsuit to proceed.

Norman W. Bernstein and other trustees of the Third Site Trust Fund sued the former owners of now-closed Enviro-Chem, their corporate entities and their insurers to recoup cleanup costs under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, the Indiana Environmental Legal Action Statute, and more. None of the parties being sued have paid into the trust set up to finance and oversee cleanup, despite an alleged obligation to do so.

In Norman W. Bernstein, et al. v. Patricia A. Bankert, et al. and Auto Owners Mutual Insurance Co., 11-1501, 11-1523,  Chief Judge Richard Young in the Southern District of Indiana dismissed all claims at the summary judgment stage: Count I, a CERCLA cost-recovery action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. Section 9607(a); Count II, seeking a declaratory judgment under CERCLA of the defendants’ joint and several liability; Count III, a cost-recovery action under the ELA, codified at I.C. 13-30-9-2; Count IV, negligence; Count V, nuisance; and Count VII, seeking a declaratory judgment of coverage against the insurers. The complaint did not include a Count VI. In addition, Auto Owners filed a conditional cross-appeal to try to preserve a favorable outcome in the event of a reversal of the court’s final judgment.

In the 66-page opinion authored by U.S. District Judge Jon E. DeGuilio, of the Northern District of Indiana, sitting by designation, the 7th Circuit reversed the dismissal of counts I, II, III and VII.

“In Count I, the Trustees have made a timely CERCLA claim, under 42 U.S.C. § 9607(a)(4)(B), to recover costs incurred pursuant to the 2002 AOC. The Trustees’ Count II “companion claim” for a declaratory judgment of CERCLA liability is therefore also reinstated. We find that the Indiana ELA claim contained in Count III is timely, and that the declaratory judgment claim contained in Count VII is not moot,” DeGuilio wrote.

“The district court committed no abuse of discretion in its handling of the summary judgment briefing process. Finally, we affirm the district court’s denial of Auto Owners’ motion for summary judgment on preclusion grounds. The trustees’ suit is reinstated and remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.”

 

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