On January 26, 2015, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled, in Morristown Associates vs. Grant Oil Company, that contribution claims under the New Jersey Spill Compensation and Control Act (“Spill Act”) are not subject to the six-year tort statute of limitations.
In Morristown Associates, a 2003 investigation of a shopping center property revealed that an underground storage tank maintained by a tenant at the site appeared to have been leaking since 1988, contaminating a neighboring property.
Three years later, in 2006, the owner of the shopping center brought a claim under the Spill Act against the tenant and its oil suppliers. The trial court held that New Jersey’s general six-year statute of limitations applied to the plaintiff’s claim and further held that the owner of the shopping center property should have learned of the contamination as early as 1998. The trial court applied what is known as the “discovery rule,” holding that the property owner should have investigated the site for previously unknown tanks after it learned of a different leaking tank at the site. The trial court ruled that the statute of limitations began to run in 1998, and the Spill Act claim therefore expired in 2004, two years before the complaint was filed.
The Supreme Court reversed the lower court decision. The Court explained that the language of the Spill Act specifically enumerated the only defenses allowed under the Act and that a statute of limitations was not among the listed defenses. The Court concluded that the legislature had intended that there be no statute of limitations applicable to the Spill Act
The Court also noted that the Spill Act was fundamentally a remedial statute and that a statute of limitations would undermine that purpose by relieving liable parties of their clean-up obligations. Further, the fact that the legislature remained silent for decades while courts throughout the state uniformly applied the Spill Act without any limitations period demonstrated acquiescence, which only the legislature itself should alter. The Court, therefore, reinstated the Spill Act claim and allowed the plaintiff’s action to proceed.