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Eleventh Circuit Finds CERCLA’s Discovery Tolling Provision Does Not Apply to Personal Injury Claims Subject to the Price-Anderson Act

Earlier this week the Eleventh Circuit issued a published decision in Pinares v. United Technology Corporation, No. 18-15104, slip op. (11th Cir. Aug. 31, 2020), affirming the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida’s grant of summary judgment in favor of Pratt & Whitney, dismissing the plaintiffs’ claims as time-barred. In doing so, the Court held that the personal injury tolling provision in the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (“CERCLA”) does not apply to public liability actions brought pursuant to the Price-Anderson Act (“PAA”) or to claims styled under state law based on injuries from radiation exposure. Thus, the lawsuit pursued by Joselyn and Steve Santiago alleging that Pratt & Whitney was liable for their deceased daughter Cynthia Santiago’s cancer was time barred.

Cynthia lived in the Acreage, a residential area of Palm Beach County, Florida. Pratt & Whitney owned and operated a nearby nuclear testing site. The Santiagos allege that between 1993 and 2000 contaminated soil from the testing site was excavated and used as fill to build the Acreage community and that runoff from the contaminated soil leached in Acreage’s water supply. A pediatric brain cancer cluster was identified in Acreage in 2009, the same year Cynthia was diagnosed with brain cancer. Cythnia turned eighteen in March 2014 and, after speaking with an attorney, learned for the first time about the radioactive contamination in Acreage. She filed suit against Pratt & Whitney in November 2014 but passed away in 2016 while the case was still pending.

Following Cynthia’s death, the Santiagos filed an amended complaint asserting two causes of action grounded in negligence and trespass and a public liability claim under the PAA which provides the exclusive avenue for relief for personal injury claims arising from nuclear incidents, including releases. See 42 U.S.C. § 2011, et seq. The PAA requires application of the state substantive law, including, here, Florida’s statute of limitations period, which is not tolled for delayed discovery or minority under either the PAA or Florida law for the claims asserted by the Santiagos. Pratt & Whitney thus moved for summary judgment, alleging that the Santiagos’ claims were barred by Florida’s four-year statute of limitations for negligence and trespass, which accrued upon Cynthia’s diagnosis in 2009. The District Court agreed and ruled in favor of Pratt & Whitney. See Pinares v. United Tech. Corp., No. 10-80883-CIV-MARRA, 2018 WL 10502426 (S.D. Fla. Nov. 14, 2018).

On appeal before the Eleventh Circuit, the Santiagos asserted, as they had in the lower court, that CERCLA’s tolling provision should have been applied to their claims, which would have resulted in the claim being timely. Specifically, CERCLA provides that the statute of limitations for any claim “brought under State law” for injury or property damage resulting from a release of a hazardous substance begins to run from the date a plaintiff knew or reasonably should have known that her injury was caused by a hazardous substance. Moreover, in the case of a minor, the limitations period begins to run from either the time of discovery of the cause or the date the plaintiff reaches the age of majority as determined by state law, whichever is later. 42 U.S.C. §9658(a)(1).

In determining whether CERCLA’s tolling provision applied, the Eleventh Circuit analyzed whether the Santiagos’ claims were “brought under state law.” The court explained that through the Amendments Act (which amended the PAA) Congress vested federal courts with original jurisdiction over public liability actions and stated that “each public liability action ‘shall be deemed to be an action arising under section 2210 of this title.” Id. at 11 (quoting 42 U.S.C. §2014(hh)). Courts including the Eleventh Circuit have “unambiguously interpreted” the Amendments Act to create an exclusive federal cause of action for nuclear incidents. Id. For this reason, the Eleventh Circuit concluded that “a public liability action can never be ‘brought under State law.’” Id. at 12. The Santiagos’ lawsuit constituted a “public liability action” because they alleged injury arising from a nuclear incident. Moreover, the Santiagos brought their public liability action—like all plaintiffs bringing a public liability action—pursuant to federal law. Accordingly, the Eleventh Circuit held that the Santiagos cannot take advantage of CERCLA’s tolling provision and that the district court property applied Florida’s applicable four-year statute of limitations.

The Eleventh Circuit’s decision clarifies that litigants asserting a public liability action pursuant to the PAA cannot avail themselves of CERCLA’s tolling provision. Parties defending against public liability actions under the PAA should likewise remain vigilant of lapsing statute of limitations as it can provide a means of disposing of otherwise costly and protracted litigation.