Law School Case Brief
State v. Exxon Mobil Corp. - 168 N.H. 211, 126 A.3d 266 (2015)
Even where Congress has not completely displaced state regulation in a specific area, state law is nullified to the extent that it actually conflicts with federal law. This "conflict preemption" arises when compliance with both federal and state regulations is a physical impossibility, or when state law stands as an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the full purposes and objectives of Congress.
In 1990, Congress amended the Federal Clean Air Act to require the use of an “oxygenate” in gasoline in areas not meeting certain national air quality standards. In 2003, New Hampshire sued several gasoline suppliers, refiners, and chemical manufacturers seeking damages for groundwater contamination allegedly caused by methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE). Before trial, all defendants except Exxon settled with the State. After almost ten years of litigation, the case went to trial in 2013 on three causes of action: negligence; strict liability — design defect; and strict liability — failure to warn. The jury found in favor of the State on all of its claims.
Does the Federal Clean Air Act preempt the State’s claim for damages for groundwater contamination that is allegedly caused by methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE)?
The Federal Clean Air Act did not preempt the State's claim for damages for groundwater contamination allegedly caused by MTBE. Congress was sensitive to the magnitude of the economic burdens it might be imposing by virtue of the RFG Program, “they hardly establish that Congress had a ‘clear and manifest intent’ to preempt state tort judgments that might be premised on the use of one approved oxygenate over a slightly more expensive one. The Court held that MTBE does not conflict with federal policy, and rejected Exxon's arguments that because there was no safer, feasible alternative to MTBE, it was impossible for Exxon to comply with federal requirements without using MTBE.
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