Supreme Court Rules Against Homeowners in Toxic Water Case

A recent North Carolina Supreme Court decision has dismissed claims filed by a group of water contamination victims living at Camp Lejeune, a Marine Corps base camp.

The Supreme Court’s 7-2 decision ruled that state laws prevent any lawsuit from being filed more than 10 years after the contamination occurred. The residents lived on land used by CTS Corp., an electronics manufacturer, before the company sold its property in 1987. It wasn’t until 2009 that residents learned that their well water contained chemicals known to cause reproductive disorders, cancers and birth defects.

The court decision was based on the technical difference between a “statute of limitations” and a “statute of repose.” A statute of limitations runs from the date of an injury or illness, or the date that the injury’s cause is discovered. North Carolina’s statute of repose, however, prevents lawsuits from being filed after 10 years, even if the cause of injury (or in this case, contamination) was not discovered until more than 10 years after the last date of its occurrence.

In cases like these, federal law states that time limits do not start running until the cause of the claimants’ illnesses are discovered. Although a lower court ruling allowed this federal law to override the statute of repose, permitting the lawsuit to proceed, the North Carolina Supreme Court reversed that ruling. 

At issue is the question of why state law was permitted to trump federal law. In this case, the state Supreme Court avoided the issue by stating that Congress only intended federal environmental laws to preempt traditional statutes of limitations, not statutes of repose.

For many, the decision to prevent nearly one million victims — many of whom are military members — from seeking damages has evoked memories of the government’s decades-long refusal to deliver compensation or disability benefits to victims of Agent Orange. If you’ve been unfairly denied benefits owed to you and your family, contact an attorney focused on VA benefits

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