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SJC ruling Seen Facilitating Public's Suits Against Polluters

Mar 8, 2002 | The Boston Globe

In a precedent-setting decision that makes it easier for the public to win lawsuits against polluters, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled yesterday that the former owner of a toxic site was responsible for polluting a nearby Beverly tennis club, despite the site owner's claim that the statute of limitations had run out.

For years, it was often up to landowners to test for pollution if they suspected a neighboring polluter had dirtied the land. The statute of limitations on suing is three years, and the clock often started ticking as soon as the landowner suspected pollution. Many companies had cases thrown out of court because the statute of limitations had run out before the landowner amassed enough evidence to sue.

In this case, The Bass River Tennis Club originally argued that its land had lost more than $2 million in resale value because a former radar-component factory owned by Varian Associates leaked chemicals onto its land. Bass River officials discovered the pollution in 1993, and first sued Varian in 1996. But Varian lawyers said the tennis club had suspicions about pollution before 1993, and should have sued earlier. Yesterday's decision overturned a lower court's ruling that the statute of limitations had run out.

Specialists say the ruling means the three-year statute of limitations doesn't start until pollution is actually discovered, giving victims more time to sue.

''It's important,'' said Matt Wilson, of the Toxics Action Center in Boston. ''This places the burden back on the polluter.''

For years, he said, victims of pollution often could not sue until they had run their own studies to prove their land was polluted, often spending thousands of dollars of their own money. Yesterday's decision ultimately could force companies to test nearby lands to know what they are polluting - or be responsible for damages later.

The state attorney general's office, which successfully argued the case before the SJC, said the decision gives more strength to a public that often has little recourse in going after polluters.

An attorney for the tennis club said it would likely go to court to collect damages, which a lower court ruled could be about $1.6 million. An attorney for Variant said the company was assessing options.

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