U.S. court rebuffs Marine Corps families in polluted water case

(Reuters) - In a defeat for families claiming they were sickened by groundwater contamination many years ago at a U.S. Marine Corps base in North Carolina, a federal appeals court has rejected an attempt by the state’s legislature to extend a time limit for filing pollution-related lawsuits.

As a result, families involved in 10 lawsuits will be unlikely to collect damages for alleged injuries suffered at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, although a lawyer for the plaintiffs said they were considering further appellate options.

Families of Marine Corps and Navy personnel stationed at Camp Lejeune over a period of 31 years, ending in 1987, had higher cancer rates than Marines and sailors in other bases without groundwater contamination, according to the plaintiffs.

Water pollution at the camp was allegedly linked to illnesses more than a decade after the Marine Corps halted its alleged polluting at the sprawling base on the Atlantic Coast.

Lawsuits were filed and 10 of them were consolidated in 2011 in U.S. District Court in the Northern District of Georgia.

The federal government tried to have the families’ cases dismissed, arguing that North Carolina’s 10-year limit on filing lawsuits, known as a statute of repose, barred the actions, which were filed long after the alleged contamination occurred.

The Georgia judge rejected the federal government’s argument, saying that the U.S. Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) preempted the North Carolina time limit. The government appealed.

In the interim, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June, in an unrelated case, that CERCLA did not preempt the North Carolina law. Then, in an attempt to help the families, North Carolina state lawmakers tried to circumvent the Supreme Court ruling by voting in August to allow such lawsuits to be brought retroactively, beyond the 10-year limit, under state law.

But in a ruling on Tuesday, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court said the state’s statutory time limit was not preempted by CERCLA.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Justice declined to comment on the ruling.

The federal circuit ruled the state lawmakers’ action in August was a new law, not a clarification of existing law, and so could not be applied retroactively to latent diseases that may be undiagnosed for years past the state’s 10-year limit.

“We contend that when the ten-year period began to run is still in dispute and that the cases should not simply be dismissed,” said John Korzen, a Wake Forest University law professor representing the families.

Under the state’s statute of repose, a 10-year clock starts when the final instance of pollution occurs or when a property is sold. After that period, no lawsuits may be filed.

In 2012, President Barack Obama signed a bill offering some of the Camp Lejeune families government-funded medical care.

The case is Bryant v. United States, 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 12-15424.

Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Chris Reese