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The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) allows a private party to seek contribution from non-settling parties, but, unlike a settlement with the United States or a State, CERCLA does not instruct a court as to how a settlement agreement between two private parties affects the contribution liability of non-settling parties. 42 U.S.C.S. § 9613(f)(1). Rather, CERCLA charges a district court to allocate response costs among liable parties using such equitable factors as the court determines are appropriate. 42 U.S.C.S. § 9613(f)(1). The court reads this provision to give the district court discretion regarding the most equitable method of accounting for settling parties.
In 1977, Warren Picillo, Sr. and his wife agreed to allow part of their pig farm in Coventry, Rhode Island ("Picillo site") to be used as a disposal site for drummed and bulk waste. Later that year, after thousands of barrels of hazardous waste replaced what pigs at one time called home, a monstrous explosion ripped through the Picillo site. The towering flames, lasting several days, brought the waste site to the attention of the Rhode Island environmental authorities. Rhode Island investigators "discovered large trenches and pits filled with free-flowing, multi-colored, pungent liquid wastes." Recognizing the environmental disaster it had discovered, Rhode Island closed the pig farm and, with the federal government, began the cleanup process. In a nutshell, this case involves an action under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act ("CERCLA") §§ 101-405, as amended by the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act of 1986 ("SARA"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 9601-9675, brought by a company whose hazardous waste was deposited at the Picillo site against a group of people who were involved with the site.
Did the district court err in holding that whether a potentially responsible party (PRP) could seek contribution ultimately depended on whether it incurred future costs?
On the limitations issue, the court agreed with the district court that whether a potentially responsible party (PRP) could seek contribution ultimately depended on whether it incurred future costs. Until that occurred, regardless of whether liability had been assessed against a contribution defendant, there had been no expenditure or fixing of costs for which a PRP could seek contribution. Res judicata and defendants' settlement agreements with the United States and Rhode Island also did not bar the contribution claim. As to trial issues, the district court did not abuse its discretion in concluding that defendants were liable, as operators, for 100 percent of the waste at the site. It did not abuse its discretion by applying the pro tanto method of accounting. There was no clear error in its factual findings. Its conclusions that defendants were transporters, operators, and arrangers were not clearly erroneous. Its entry of a monetary judgment based upon the costs associated with the groundwater cleanup, its awarding of contribution entitlement, its finding of joint and several liability, and its award of prejudgment interest were also upheld.