12 ELR 20966 | Environmental Law Reporter | copyright © 1982 | All rights reserved
United States v. C & R Trucking Co.Civ. A. No. 81-0071-P(H) (537 F. Supp. 1080) (N.D. W. Va. April 28, 1982)
In an action to assess a civil penalty and to recover oil spill cleanup costs under § 311 of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (FWPCA), the court rules that the government's causes of action were brought within the applicable statutes of limitations. Because § 311 of the FWPCA does not specify a limitations period, removal cost actions are governed by 28 U.S.C. § 2415, which sets a six-year limit for contractual claims and a three-year limit for tort claims. The court holds that the government's cause of action for recovery of removal costs, pursuant to § 311(f)(2) of the FWPCA, sounds in quasi-contract for the purposes of establishing the limitation period. Because the government is seeking restitution for money expended, not compensatory damages, the FWPCA should be construed liberally to accomplish its purposes. As a result, the six-year limitation applies to the removal cost action and the claim is not barred. The court also rules that the civil penalty claim under § 311(b)(6) is governed by 28 U.S.C. § 2462, and finds that the government's action was filed within the five-year limit set by that section.
Counsel for Plaintiff
Betsy C. Steinfeld, Ass't U.S. Attorney
P.O. Box 591, Wheeling WV 26003
Diane L. Donley; Carol E. Dinkins, Ass't Attorney General
Land and Natural Resources Division
Department of Justice, Washington DC 20530
Counsel for Defendant
Ronald W. Kasserman
Galbraith, Seibert, Kasserman, Farnsworth, Gillenwater & Glauser
1217 Chapline St., Wheeling WV 26003
W. H. Ballard II
Ballard & Brumfield
Tyson Towers Bldg., 8 Bank St., Welch WV 204801
[12 ELR 20966]
HADEN, District Judge.
The Government instituted this action on November 27, 1981, seeking to assess a civil penalty against the Defendant under the Clean Water Act1 and to recover the costs which it incurred in removing a quantity of oil from a tributary of the Ohio River which was allegedly discharged from the Defendant's truck on or about February 19, 1977.2 The Defendant moves this Court to dismiss this action for the reason that it is barred by the three year limitation on the commencement of an action by the Government to recover on a tort claim.3 The parties have submitted memoranda and supplemental materials in support of their respective positions. For the reasons set out below, [12 ELR 20967] this Court hereby denies Defendant's motion to dismiss.
On or about February 19, 1977, one of the Defendant's tank trucks was involved in an automobile accident on West Virginia Route 2 in Tyler County, West Virginia. As a result of that accident, approximately 6,000 gallons of oil spilled from the Defendant's truck, 3,000 gallons of which allegedly entered into a tributary of the Ohio River.4 After the Defendant allegedly refused to ratify a contract with a "clean-up" contractor, the U.S. Coast Guard arranged for the removal of the discharged oil from the aforementioned tributary and its shoreline, pursuant to 33 U.S.C. § 1321(c).5 These cleap-up activities continued until March 18, 1977.6 On November 21, 1977, the Coast Guard assessed a Two Thousand ($2,000.00) Dollar penalty against the Defendant as a result of the aforementioned oil spill. Defendant has continued in its refusal to pay this penalty, notwithstanding the fact that the Coast Guard affirmed the assessment on May 8, 1978.7
II. Statute of Limitations
In the case at bar, there are two distinct causes of action. The first is to recover removal costs, pursuant to 33 U.S.C. § 1321(f)(2). The second is to assess a civil penalty, pursuant to 33 U.S.C. § 1321(b)(6)(B).
A. Removal costs.
The Government's cause of action to recover removal costs against the Defendant under Section 311(f)(2) of the Clean Water Act accrued as of March 18, 1977.8 Since the Clean Water Act does not contain a specific limitation on the commencement of an action by the Government to recover its removal costs, this Court must apply 28 U.S.C. § 2415, which provides in pertinent part:
"(a) Subject to the provisions of Section 2416 of this Title . . . and except as otherwise provided by Congress, every action for money damages brought by the United States or any officer or agency thereof which is founded upon any contract express or implied in law or fact, shall be barred unless the complaint is filed within six years after the right of action accrues
(b) Subject to the provisions of Section 2416 of this Title . . . and except as otherwise provided by Congress, every action for money damages brought by the United States or an officer or agency thereof which is founded upon a tort shall be barred unless the complaint is filed within three years after the right of action first accures. . . ."
The Defendant argues that the Defendant's cause of action to recover its removal costs under Section 311(f)(2) of the Clean Water Act is a statutorily created nuisance action which sounds in tort. The Government, on the other hand, argues that its cause of action under Section 311(f)(2) sounds in quasi-contract and that 28 U.S.C. § 2415(a) is the applicable statute of limitations.9 This Court has only been able to find one unreported district court decision which has addressed this issue.10
In U.S. v. Poughkeepsie Housing Authority, et al. C.A.No. 80-1998, Slip Op. at 8-9 (S.D.N.Y., Oct. 16, 1981),the court held that the six year limitation contained in 28 U.S.C. § 2514(a) was applicable to an action brought by the Government to recover its removal costs under Section 311(f)(2) of the Clean Water Act. In reaching this conclusion, the Poughkeepsie Housing Authority court reasoned that:
"When one party receives some benefit either in goods or services, but does not compensate the party who has conferred the benefit, courts have allowed the uncompensated party to assert a quantum meruit or quasi-contractual claim for the value of the benefits conferred. See S.S. Silberlatt, Inc. v. East Harlem Pilot Block, 608 F.2d 28, 37 (2d Cir. 1979); Gulf Oil Trading Co. v. Creole Supply, 596 F.2d 515, 520 (2nd Cir. 1979); United States v. Lims, 524 F.2d 799, 801 (9th Cir. 1975); Banco Nacional De Cuba v. Chase Manhattan Bank, 505 F. Supp. 412, 445 (S.D.N.Y.1980). Such a quasi-contractual obligation is created in order to do justice to the parties, 'without any expression of dissent.' U.S. v. Neidorf, 522 F.2d 916, 919 (9th Cir. 1979) cert. denied 423 U.S. 1087, 96 S. Ct. 878, 47 L. Ed. 2d 97 (1976) (quoting 1A Corbin, Contracts § 19 (1963).
In the instant action, although the oil spill could be considered a tort, see U.S. v. Bear Marine Services, supra, 509 F. Supp.  at 718, Comment Oil Pollution of the Sea, 10 Harv.Int'l.L.J. 316, 348 (1969), the government is not seeking compensatory damages suffered as a result thereof, but rather restitution for the money it expended on behalf of the defendants to remove the discharge. Defendants have received the benefits of prompt governmental action on their behalf and should therefore make restitution to the government for its efforts. Accordingly, the government's suit to recover the value of the benefits conferred must be characterized as quasi-contractual. See U.S. v. Palm Beach Gardens, supra, 635 F.2d  at 341; 3 Benedict on Admiralty 9-16 (7th Ed., I. Hall, A. Sann & K. Halajian 1980). Moreover, in determining the appropriate statute of limitations, the court adheres to the principal [sic] that the FWPCA should be liberally construed to accomplish its purposes, see U.S. v. Redwood City, supra, 640 F.2d  at 968, one of which is to make the polluters rather than the public pay the cost of oil spill clean-ups, see U.S. v. Coastal States Gathering Co., supra, 643 F.2d  at 1128; U.S. v. Marathon Pipeline Co., supra, 589 F.2d  at 1309. The court believes that if the gobernment is to be given only one chance to recover the money it spends in pollution clean-ups, then the longest statute of limitations possible, given the nature of the suit, should apply."
This Court hereby adopts the Poughkeepsie Housing Authority court's rationale as its own and holds that 28 U.S.C. § 2415(a) is the applicable statute of limitations in an action brought under Section 311(f)(2) of the Clean Water Act. In the case at bar, therefore, this Court finds that the Government's cause of action is not barred by the applicable six year statute of limitations.
B. Civil penalty.
The penalty prescribed by Section 311(b)(6) of the Clean Water Act, 33 U.S.C. § 1321(b)(6), is civil rather than penal. See U.S. v. Eureka Pipeline Co., 401 F. Supp. 934 (N.D.W.Va.1975). Since the Clean Water Act does not contain a specific limitation on the commencement of an action to assess a civil penalty, this Court must resort to 28 U.S.C. § 2462, which provides:
"Except as otherwise provided by act of Congress, an action, suit or proceeding for the enforcement of any civil fine, penalty, or forfeiture, pecuniary or otherwise, [12 ELR 20968] shall not be entertained unless commenced within five years from the date when the claim first accrued if, within the same period, the offender or the property is found within the United States in order that proper service may be made thereon."
In the case at bar, the oil spill is alleged to have occurred on or about February 19, 1977. The Government instituted this action on November 27, 1981, within the five years prescribed by 28 U.S.C. § 2462. This Court finds, therefore, that the Government is not barred from bringing this action to assess a civil penalty against the Defendant.
Accordingly, this Court hereby denies Defendant's motion to dismiss.
1. 33 U.S.C. § 1321(b)(6)(B).
2. 33 U.S.C. § 1321(f)(2).
3. 28 U.S.C. § 2415(b).
Defendant also moves this Court to dismiss this action for reason of insufficient service of process. Subsequent to the filing of Defendant's motion to dismiss, however, the Government perfected service upon the Defendant. See Exhibit A, attached to the government's memorandum in opposition to the Defendant's motion to dismiss, filed March 25, 1982. Accordingly, Defendant's motion to dismiss for reason of insufficient service of process has been rendered moot.
4. Complaint, P6.
5. Complaint, P9.
6. See Defendant's reply memorandum, at I, filed March 30, 1982, and Plaintiff's memorandum in opposition, at 2, filed March 23, 1982.
7. Complaint, PP15 and 16.
8. See U.S. v. Barge Shamrock, 635 F.2d 1108, 1111 (4th Cir. 1980) (holding that the Government's cause of action to recover removal costs under Section 311(f)(2) does not accrue until completion of the oil removal operations).
9. "The legislative history of Section 2415(a) 'clearly shows that, in addition to the consensual obligations of express or implied contract, nonconsensual quasi-contractual obligations were to be subject to the six-year limitation period.'"
U.S. v. Poughkeepsie Housing Authority, et al., C.A.No. 80-1998, Slip Op. at 14, n. 11 (S.D.N.Y., Oct. 16, 1981), citing U.S. v. Limbs, 524 F.2d 799, 802 (9th Cir. 1975); U.S. v. Neidorf, 522 F.2d 916, 919 (9th Cir. 1975) cert. denied 423 U.S. 1087, 96 S. Ct. 878, 47 L. Ed. 2d 97 (1976).
10. In U.S. v. Barge Shamrock, supra, the Fourth Circuit found in that instance that the Government's Section 311(f)(2) cause of action accrued less than three years before suit was commenced. As a result, the court did not have to determine whether the Government's cause of action sounded in tort or quasi-contract.
12 ELR 20966 | Environmental Law Reporter | copyright © 1982 | All rights reserved