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Cooper Indus., Inc. v. Aviall Servs., Inc.

ELR Citation: 34 ELR 20154
Nos. No. 02-1192, (U.S., 12/13/2004)

The U.S. Supreme Court holds that a private party voluntarily cleaning contaminated property may not sue to recover costs from a potentially responsible party (PRP) unless the private party had been sued or civilly compelled to clean the site under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA). The case arose after a property owner learned of contamination on its land that it and the prior owner caused. It notified state and federal authorities, but neither took judicial or administrative measures to compel cleanup. The company cleaned the property under state supervision, and is now seeking contribution from the prior owner. Section 113(f)(1) specifies that a party may obtain contribution "during or following any civil action" under CERCLA §106 or §107(a). The natural meaning of this sentence is that contribution may only be sought subject to the specified conditions, namely, "during or following" a specified civil action. In the alternative to an action for contribution under §113(f)(1), the company argued that it may recover costs under §107(a)(4)(B) even though it is a PRP. But this claim had not been heard in the lower courts. It also declined to decide whether the company has an implied right to contribution under §107. The Court remanded the case for further hearings on the §107 claims. Thomas, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Rehnquist, C.J., and O'Connor, Scalia, Kennedy, Souter, and Breyer, JJ., joined. Ginsburg, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Stevens, J., joined.