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SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
CTS CORPORATION, PETITIONER v. PETER
WALDBURGER et al.
on writ of certiorari to the united states
court of appeals for the fourth circuit
[June 9, 2014]
delivered the opinion of the Court, except as to Part
Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980
(CERCLA), 94Stat. 2767, as amended, 42 U. S. C.
§9601 et seq., contains a provision that by its terms
pre-empts statutes of limitations applicable to state-law tort
actions in certain circumstances. §9658. Section 9658 applies
to statutes of limitations governing actions for personal injury or
property damage arising from the release of a hazardous substance,
pollutant, or contaminant into the environment.
Section 9658 adopts
what is known as the discovery rule. Under this framework, statutes
of limitations in covered actions begin to run when a plaintiff
discovers, or reasonably should have discovered, that the harm in
question was caused by the contaminant. A person who is exposed to
a toxic contaminant may not develop or show signs of resulting
injury for many years, and so Congress enacted §9658 out of
concern for long latency periods.
It is undoubted that
the discovery rule in §9658 pre-empts state statutes of
limitations that are in conflict with its terms. The question
presented in this case is whether §9658 also pre-empts state
statutes of repose.
A divided panel of the
Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held that §9658 does
pre-empt statutes of repose. That holding was in error, and, for
the reasons that follow, the judgment of the Court of Appeals must
CERCLA in 1980 “to promote ‘ “the timely
cleanup of hazardous waste sites” ’ and to ensure
that the costs of such cleanup efforts were borne by those
responsible for the contamination.” Burlington N. &
S. F. R. Co. v. United States, 556 U. S. 599, 602 (2009)
(quoting Consolidated Edison Co. of New York v. UGI Utilities,
Inc., 423 F. 3d 90, 94 (CA2 2005)). The Act provided a federal
cause of action to recover costs of cleanup from culpable entities
but not a federal cause of action for personal injury or property
damage. Instead, CERCLA directed preparation of an expert report to
determine “the ade-quacy of existing common law and statutory
remedies in providing legal redress for harm to man and the
environment caused by the release of hazardous substances into the
environment,” including “barriers to recovery posed by
existing statutes of limitations.” 42
U. S. C. §9651(e)(1), (3)(F).
The 1982 report
resulting from that statutory directive proposed certain changes to
state tort law. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works,
Superfund Section 301(e) Study Group, Injuries and Damages from
Hazardous Wastes—Analysis and Improvement of Legal Remedies,
97th Cong., 2d Sess. (Comm. Print 1982) (hereinafter Study Group
Report or Report). As relevant here, the Study Group Report noted
the long latency periods involved in harm caused by toxic
substances and “recommend[ed] that all states that have not
already done so, clearly adopt the rule that an action accrues when
the plaintiff discovers or should have discovered the injury or
disease and its cause.” Id., at pt. 1, 256. The Report
further stated: “The Recommendation is intended also to cover
the repeal of the statutes of repose which, in a number of
states[,] have the same effect as some statutes of limitation in
barring [a] plaintiff’s claim before he knows that he has
Congress did not wait
long for States to respond to some or all of the Report’s
recommendations. Instead, Congress decided to act at the federal
level. Congress amended CERCLA in 1986 to add the provision now
codified in §9658. Whether §9658 repeals statutes of
repose, as the Study Group Report recommended, is the question to
be addressed here.
The instant case arose
in North Carolina, where CTS Corporation ran an electronics plant
in Asheville from 1959 to 1985. (A subsidiary, CTS of Asheville,
Inc., ran the plant until 1983, when CTS Corporation took over.)
The plant manufactured and disposed of electronics and electronic
parts. In the process, it stored the chemicals trichloroethylene
(TCE) and cis-1, 2-dichloroethane (DCE). In 1987, CTS sold the
property, along with a promise that the site was environmentally
sound. The buyer eventually sold portions of the property to
individuals who, along with adjacent landowners, brought this suit
alleging damage from contaminants on the land. Those who alleged
the injury and damage were the plaintiffs in the trial court and
are respondents here.
Their suit was brought
in 2011, 24 years after CTS sold the property. The suit, filed in
the United States District Court for the Western District of
North Carolina, was a state-law nuisance action against CTS,
petitioner here. Respondents sought “reclamation” of
“toxic chemical contaminants” belonging to petitioner,
“remediation of the environmental harm caused” by
contaminants, and “monetary damages in an amount that will
fully compensate them for all the losses and damages they have
suffered, . . . and will suffer in the future.”
App. to Pet. for Cert. 57a. Respondents claim that in 2009 they
learned from the Environmental Protection Agency that their well
water was contaminated, allegedly while petitioner operated its
Carolina’s statute of repose, CTS moved to dismiss the claim.
That statute prevents subjecting a defendant to a tort suit brought
more than 10 years after the last culpable act of the defendant. N.
C. Gen. Stat. Ann. §1–52(16) (Lexis 2013) (“[N]o
cause of action shall accrue more than 10 years from the last act
or omission of the defendant giving rise to the cause of
action”); Robinson v. Wadford, ___ N. C. App. ___, ___,
731 S. E. 2d 539, 541 (2012) (referring to the provision as a
“statute of repose”). Because CTS’ last act
occurred in 1987, when it sold the electronics plant, the District
Court accepted the recommendation of a Magistrate Judge and granted
CTS’ motion to dismiss.
A divided panel of the
Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed, ruling that
§9658 pre-empted the statute of repose. 723 F. 3d 434
(2013). The majority found §9658 “ambiguous,” but
also found that the interpretation in favor of pre-emption was
preferable because of CERCLA’s remedial purpose. Id., at
dissented. Id., at 445–454. She found the statutory
text’s exclusion of statutes of repose to be “plain and
unambiguous.” Id., at 445. She further indicated that, even
“if the preemptive effect of §9658 were susceptible to
two interpretations, a presumption against preemption would counsel
that we should limit §9658’s preemptive reach to
statutes of limitations without also extending it to statutes of
The Courts of Appeals,
as well as the Supreme Court of South Dakota, have rendered
conflicting judgments on this question. Compare Burlington N. &
S. F. R. Co. v. Poole Chemical Co., 419 F. 3d 355, 362 (CA5
2005), and Clark County v. Sioux Equipment Corp., 2008 S. D.
60, ¶¶27–29, 753 N. W. 2d 406, 417, with McDonald
v. Sun Oil Co., 548 F. 3d 774, 779 (CA9 2008). This Court granted
certiorari. 571 U. S. ___ (2014).
The outcome of the
case turns on whether §9658 makes a distinction between
state-enacted statutes of limitations and statutes of repose.
Statutes of limitations and statutes of repose both are mechanisms
used to limit the temporal extent or duration of liability for
tortious acts. Both types of statute can operate to bar a
plaintiff’s suit, and in each instance time is the
controlling factor. There is considerable common ground in the
policies underlying the two types of statute. But the time periods
specified are measured from different points, and the statutes seek
to attain different purposes and objectives. And, as will be
explained, §9658 mandates a distinction between the two.
In the ordinary course,
a statute of limitations creates “a time limit for suing in a
civil case, based on the date when the claim accrued.”
Black’s Law Dictionary 1546 (9th ed. 2009) (Black’s);
see also Heimeshoff v. Hartford Life & Accident Ins. Co., 571
U. S. ___, ___ (2013) (slip op., at 4) (“As a general
matter, a statute of limitations begins to run when the cause of
action ‘ “accrues” ’—that
is, when ‘the plaintiff can file suit and obtain
relief’ ” (quoting Bay Area Laundry and Dry
Cleaning Pension Trust Fund v. Ferbar Corp. of Cal., Inc., 522
U. S. 192, 201 (1997) )). Measured by this standard, a claim
accrues in a personal-injury or property-damage action “when
the injury occurred or was discovered.” Black’s 1546.
For example, North Carolina, whose laws are central to this case,
has a statute of limitations that allows a person three years to
bring suit for personal injury or property damage, beginning on the
date that damage “becomes apparent or ought reasonably to
have become apparent to the claimant, whichever event first
occurs.” N. C. Gen. Stat. Ann. §1–52(16).
A statute of repose, on
the other hand, puts an outer limit on the right to bring a civil
action. That limit is measured not from the date on which the claim
accrues but instead from the date of the last culpable act or
omission of the defendant. A statute of repose “bar[s] any
suit that is brought after a specified time since the defendant
acted (such as by designing or manufacturing a product), even if
this period ends before the plaintiff has suffered a resulting
injury.” Black’s 1546. The statute of repose limit is
“not related to the accrual of any cause of action; the
injury need not have occurred, much less have been
discovered.” 54 C. J. S., Limitations of Actions
§7, p. 24 (2010) (hereinafter C. J. S.). The repose
provision is therefore equivalent to “a cutoff,” Lampf,
Pleva, Lipkind, Prupis & Petigrow v. Gilbertson, 501 U. S.
350, 363 (1991) , in essence an “absolute . . .
bar” on a defendant’s temporal liability,
C. J. S. §7, at 24.
Although there is
substantial overlap between the policies of the two types of
statute, each has a distinct purpose and each is targeted at a
different actor. Statutes of limitations require plaintiffs to
pursue “diligent prosecution of known claims.”
Black’s 1546. Statutes of limitations “promote justice
by preventing surprises through [plaintiffs’] revival of
claims that have been allowed to slumber until evidence has been
lost, memories have faded, and witnesses have disappeared.”
Railroad Telegraphers v. Railway Express Agency, Inc., 321
U. S. 342 –349 (1944). Statutes of repose also encourage
plaintiffs to bring actions in a timely manner, and for many of the
same reasons. But the rationale has a different emphasis. Statutes
of repose effect a legislative judgment that a defendant should
“be free from liability after the legislatively determined
period of time.” C. J. S. §7, at 24; see also
School Board of Norfolk v. United States Gypsum Co., 234 Va.
32, 37, 360 S. E. 2d 325, 328 (1987) (“[S]tatutesof
repose reflect legislative decisions that as a matter of policy
there should be a specific time beyond which a defendant should no
longer be subjected to protracted liability” (internal
quotation marks omitted)). Like a discharge in bankruptcy, a
statute of repose can be said to provide a fresh start or freedom
from liability. Indeed, the Double Jeopardy Clause has been
described as “a statute of repose” because it in part
embodies the idea that at some point a defendant should be able to
put past events behind him. Jones v. Thomas, 491 U. S. 376,
392 (1989) (Scalia, J., dissenting).
One central distinction
between statutes of limitations and statutes of repose underscores
their differing purposes. Statutes of limitations, but not statutes
of repose, are subject to equitable tolling, a doctrine that
“pauses the running of, or ‘tolls,’ a statute of
limitations when a litigant has pursued his rights diligently but
some extraordinary circumstance prevents him from bringing a timely
action.” Lozano v. Montoya Alvarez, 572 U. S. 1 , ___
(2014) (slip op., at 7). Statutes of repose, on the other hand,
generally may not be tolled, even in cases of extraordinary
circumstances beyond a plaintiff’s control. See, e.g., Lampf,
supra, at 363 (“[A] period of repose [is] inconsistent with
tolling”); 4 C. Wright & A. Miller, Federal Practice and
Procedure §1056, p. 240 (3d ed. 2002) (“[A] critical
distinction is that a repose period is fixed and its expiration
will not be delayed by estoppel or tolling”); Restatement
(Second) of Torts §899, Comment g (1977).
Equitable tolling is
applicable to statutes of limitations because their main thrust is
to encourage the plaintiff to “pursu[e] his rights
diligently,” and when an “extraordinary circumstance
prevents him from bringing a timely action,” the restriction
imposed by the statute of limitations does not further the
statute’s purpose. Lozano, supra, at ___ (slip op., at 7).
But a statute of repose is a judgment that defendants should
“be free from liability after the legislatively determined
period of time, beyond which the liability will no longer exist and
will not be tolled for any reason.” C. J. S.
§7, at 24. As an illustrative example, under North Carolina
law statutes of limitations may be tolled but statutes of repose
may not. See, e.g., Monson v. Paramount Homes, Inc., 133 N. C.
App. 235, 239–241, 515 S. E. 2d 445, 449 (1999).
provisions of §9658 and its definitions are central here, so
the pre-emption directive is quoted in full:
statutes of limitations for hazardous substance cases
to State statutes
“In the case of
any action brought under State law for personal injury, or property
damages, which are caused or contributed to by exposure to any
hazardous substance, or pollutant or contaminant, released into the
environment from a facility, if the applicable limitations period
for such action (as specified in the State statute of limitations
or under common law) provides a commencement date which is earlier
than the federally required commencement date, such period shall
commence at the federally required commencement date in lieu of the
date specified in such State statute.
“(2) State law
provided in paragraph (1), the statute of limitations established
under State law shall apply in all actions brought under State law
for personal in-jury, or property damages, which are caused or
contributed to by exposure to any hazardous substance, or pollutant
or contaminant, released into the environment from a facility.
. . . . .
. . . . .
‘applicable limitations period’ means the period
specified in a statute of limitations during which a civil action
referred to in subsection (a)(1) of this section may be
‘commencement date’ means the date specified in a
statute of limitations as the beginning of the applicable
required commencement date
provided in subparagraph (B), the term ‘federally required
commencement date’ means the date the plaintiff knew (or
reasonably should have known) that the personal injury or property
damages referred to in subsection (a)(1) of this section were
caused or contributed to by the hazardous substance or pollutant or
“In the case of
a minor or incompetent plaintiff, the term ‘federally
required commencement date’ means the later of the date
referred to in subparagraph (A) or the following:
“(i) In the case
of a minor, the date on which the minor reaches the age of
majority, as determined by State law, or has a legal representative
“(ii) In the case
of an incompetent individual, the date on which such individual
becomes competent or has had a legal representative
On the facts of this
case, petitioner does not contend that North Carolina’s
3-year statute of limitations bars respondents’ suit. Though
the suit was filed in 2011, more than 20 years after petitioner
sold the property at issue, respondents allege that they learned
about the contamination only in 2009.
The Court now
examines in more detail the question whether the state statute of
repose is pre-empted by the federal statute.
The Court of Appeals
supported its interpretation of §9658 by invoking the
proposition that remedial statutes should be interpreted in a
liberal manner. The Court of Appeals was in error when it treated
this as a substitute for a conclusion grounded in the
statute’s text and structure. After all, almost every statute
might be described as remedial in the sense that all statutes are
designed to remedy some problem. And even if the Court identified
some subset of statutes as especially remedial, the Court has
emphasized that “no legislation pursues its purposes at all
costs.” Rodriguez v. United States, 480 U. S. 522
–526 (1987) (per curiam). Congressional intent is discerned
primarily from the statutory text. In any event, were the Court to
adopt a presumption to help resolve ambiguity, substantial support
also exists for the proposition that “the States’
coordinate role in government counsels against reading”
federal laws such as §9658 “to restrict the
States’ sovereign capacity to regulate” in areas of
traditional state concern. FTC v. Phoebe Putney Health System,
Inc., 568 U. S. ___, ___ (2013) (slip op., at 18).
Turning to the
statutory text, the Court notes first that §9658, in the
caption of subsection (a), characterizes pre-emption as an
“[e]xception” to the regular rule. §9658(a)(1).
Section 9658 contains another subsection, with the heading
“State law generally applicable,” that provides the
rule that “the statute of limitations established under State
law shall apply.” §9658(a)(2). Under this structure,
state law is not pre-empted unless it fits into the precise terms
of the exception.
The statute defines the
“applicable limitations period,” the
“commencement date” of which is subject to pre-emption,
as a period specified in “a statute of limitations.”
§9658(b)(2). Indeed, §9658 uses the term “statute
of limitations” four times (not including the caption), but
not the term “statute of repose.” This is instructive,
but it is not dispositive. While the term “statute of
limitations” has acquired a precise meaning, distinct from
“statute of repose,” and while that is its primary
meaning, it must be acknowledged that the term “statute of
limitations” is sometimes used in a less formal way. In that
sense, it can refer to any provision restricting the time in which
a plaintiff must bring suit. See Black’s 1546; see also Ernst
& Ernst v. Hochfelder, 425 U. S. 185, 210 (1976) .
Congress has used the term “statute of limitations”
when enacting statutes of repose. See, e.g., 15 U. S. C.
§78u–6(h)(1)(B)(iii)(I)(aa) (2012 ed.) (creating a
statute of repose and placing it in a provision entitled
“Statute of limitations”); 42 U. S. C.
§2278 (same). And petitioner does not point out an example in
which Congress has used the term “statute of repose.”
So the Court must proceed to examine other evidence of the meaning
of the term “statute of limitations” as it is used in
§9658. The parties debate the
historical development of the terms “statute of
limitations” and “statute of repose” in an effort
to show how these terms were likely understood in 1986, when
Congress enacted §9658. It is apparent that the distinction
between statutes of limitations and statutes of repose was
understood by some courts and scholars before 1986. The 1977
Restatement of Torts noted that “[i]n recent years special
‘statutes of repose’ have been adopted in some
states . . . . The statutory period in these
acts is usually longer than that for the regular statute of
limitations, but . . . may have run before a cause
of action came fully into existence.” Restatement (Second) of
Torts §899, Comment g.
But that usage, now
predominant, then was not the only definition of the two terms. One
scholar, writing in 1981, described multiple usages of the terms,
including both a usage in which the terms are equivalent and also
the modern, more precise usage. McGovern, The Variety, Policy and
Constitutionality of Product Liability Statutes of Repose, 30 Am.
U. L. Rev. 579, 584 (1981) (describing a statute of repose as
“distinct from a statute of limitation because [a statute of
repose] begins to run at a time unrelated to the traditional
accrual of the cause of action”).
Respondents note that
an entry in Black’s Law Dictionary from 1979 describes a
statute of limitations as follows: “Statutes of limitations
are statutes of repose.” Black’s 835 (5th ed.). That
statement likely reflects an earlier, broader usage in which the
term “statute of repose” referred to all provisions
delineating the time in which a plaintiff must bring suit. See,
e.g., Pillow v. Roberts, 13 How. 472, 477 (1852) (“Statutes
of limitation . . . are statutes of repose, and should
not be evaded by a forced construction”); Rosenberg v. North
Bergen, 61 N. J. 190, 201, 293 A. 2d 662, 667 (1972)
(“All statutes limiting in any way the time within which a
judicial remedy may be sought are statutes of repose”);
Black’s 1077 (rev. 4th ed. 1968) (defining “statute of
limitations” as “[a] statute . . . declaring
that no suit shall be maintained . . . unless brought
within a specified period after the right accrued. Statutes of
limitation are statutes of repose”); Ballentine’s Law
Dictionary 1233 (2d ed. 1948) (similar). That usage does not
necessarily support respondents’ interpretation, because the
broad usage of the term “statute of repose” does not
mean that the term “statute of limitations” must refer
to both types of statute.
From all this, it is
apparent that general usage of the legal terms has not always been
precise, but the concept that statutes of repose and statutes of
limitations are distinct was well enough established to be
reflected in the 1982 Study Group Report, commissioned by Congress.
In one of its recommendations, the Study Group Report called on
States to adopt the discovery rule now embodied in §9658.
Study Group Report, pt. 1, at 256. The Report acknowledged that
statutes of repose were not equivalent to statutes of limitations
and that a recommendation to pre-empt the latter did not
necessarily include the former. For immediately it went on to
state: “The Recommendation is intended also to cover the
repeal of the statutes of repose which, in a number of states[,]
have the same effect as some statutes of limitation in barring [a]
plaintiff’s claim before he knows that he has one.”
Ibid. The scholars and professionals who were discussing this
matter (and indeed were advising Congress) knew of a clear
distinction between the two.
The Report clearly
urged the repeal of statutes of repose as well as statutes of
limitations. But in so doing the Report did what the statute does
not: It referred to statutes of repose as a distinct category. And
when Congress did not make the same distinction, it is proper to
conclude that Congress did not exercise the full scope of its
While the use of the
term “statute of limitations” in §9658 is not
dispositive, the Court’s textual inquiry does not end there,
for other features of the statutory text further support the
exclusion of statutes of repose. The text of §9658 includes
language describing the covered period in the singular. The statute
uses the terms “the applicable limitations period,”
“such period shall commence,” and “the statute of
limitations established under State law.” This would be an
awkward way to mandate the pre-emption of two different time
periods with two different purposes.
True, the Dictionary
Act states that “words importing the singular include and
apply to several persons, parties, or things” unless
“the context indicates otherwise.” 1 U. S. C.
§1. But the Court has relied on this directive when the rule
is “ ‘necessary to carry out the evident intent of
the statute.’ ” United States v. Hayes, 555
U. S. 415 , n. 5 (2009) (quoting First Nat. Bank in
St. Louis v. Missouri, 263 U. S. 640, 657 (1924) ). As
discussed, the context here shows an evident intent not to cover
statutes of repose.
Further, to return
again to the definition of the “applicable limitations
period,” the statute describes it as “the period”
during which a “civil action” under state law
“may be brought.” §9658(b)(2).
It is true that in a literal sense a
statute of repose limits the time during which a suit “may be
brought” because it provides a point after which a suit
cannot be brought. Ibid.; see C. J. S. §7, at 24
(“A statute of repose . . . limits the time within
which an action may be brought”). But the definition of the
“applicable limitations period” presupposes that
“a [covered] civil action” exists. §9658(b)(2).
Black’s Law Dictionary defines a “civil action”
as identical to an “action at law,” which in relevant
part is defined as a “civil suit stating a legal cause of
action.” Black’s 32–33, 279 (9th ed. 2009); see
also id., at 222 (5th ed. 1979).
A statute of repose,
however, as noted above, “is not related to the accrual of
any cause of action.” C. J. S. §7, at 24.
Rather, it mandates that there shall be no cause of action beyond a
certain point, even if no cause of action has yet accrued. Thus, a
statute of repose can prohibit a cause of action from coming into
existence. See, e.g., N. C. Gen. Stat. Ann.
§1–52(16) (“[N]o cause of action shall accrue more
than 10 years from the last act or omission of the defendant giving
rise to the cause of action”); see also Hargett v. Holland,
337 N. C. 651, 654–655, 447 S. E. 2d 784, 787
(1994) (“A statute of repose creates an additional element of
the claim itself which must be satisfied in order for the claim to
be maintained . . . . If the action is not
brought within the specified period, the plaintiff literally has no
cause of action” (internal quotation marks omitted)); Lamb v.
Wedgewood South Corp., 308 N. C. 419, 440–441, 302
S. E. 2d 868, 880 (1983). A statute of repose can be said to
define the scope of the cause of action, and therefore the
liability of the defendant. See Hargett, supra, at 655–656,
447 S. E. 2d, at 788.
In light of the
distinct purpose for statutes of repose, the definition of
“applicable limitations period” (and thus also the
definition of “commencement date”) in §9658(b)(2)
is best read to encompass only statutes of limitations, which
generally begin to run after a cause of action accrues and so
always limit the time in which a civil action “may be
brought.” A statute of repose, however, may preclude an
alleged tortfeasor’s liability before a plaintiff is entitled
to sue, before an actionable harm ever occurs.
Another and altogether
unambiguous textual indication that §9658 does not pre-empt
statutes of repose is that §9658 provides for equitable
tolling for “minor or incompetent plaintiff[s].”
§9658(b)(4)(B). As noted in the preceding discussion, a
“critical distinction” between statutes of limitations
and statutes of repose “is that a repose period is fixed and
its expiration will not be delayed by estoppel or tolling.” 4
Wright, Federal Practice and Procedure §1056, at 240. As a
consequence, the inclusion of a tolling rule in §9658 suggests
that the statute’s reach is limited to statutes of
limitations, which traditionally have been subject to tolling. It
would be odd for Congress, if it did seek to pre-empt statutes of
repose, to pre-empt not just the commencement date of statutes of
repose but also state law prohibiting tolling of statutes of
repose—all without an express indication that §9658 was
intended to reach the latter.
In addition to their
argument that §9658 expressly pre-empts statutes of repose,
respondents contend that §9658 effects an implied pre-emption
because statutes of repose “creat[e] an unacceptable
‘obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the full
purposes and objectives of Congress.’ ” Wyeth v.
Levine, 555 U. S. 555 –564 (2009) (quoting Hines v.
Davidowitz, 312 U. S. 52, 67 (1941) ). Respondents argue that
pre-emption of statutes of repose advances §9658’s
purpose, namely to help plaintiffs bring tort actions for harm
caused by toxic contaminants.
But the level of
generality at which the statute’s purpose is framed affects
the judgment whether a specific reading will further or hinder that
purpose. CERCLA, it must be remembered, does not provide a complete
reme-dial framework. The statute does not provide a general cause
of action for all harm caused by toxic contaminants. Section 9658
leaves untouched States’ judgments about causes of action,
the scope of liability, the duration of the period provided by
statutes of limitations, burdens of proof, rules of evidence, and
other important rules governing civil actions.
“ ‘The case for federal pre-emption is
particularly weak where Congress has indicated its awareness of the
operation of state law in a field of federal interest, and has
nonetheless decided to stand by both concepts and to tolerate
whatever tension there [is] between them.’ ”
Wyeth, supra, at 574–575 (quoting Bonito Boats v. Thunder
Craft Boats, Inc., 489 U. S. 141 –167 (1989)).
Respondents have not shown that in light of Congress’
decision to leave those many areas of state law untouched, statutes
of repose pose an unacceptable obstacle to the attainment of
Under a proper
interpretation of §9658, statutes of repose are not within
Congress’ pre-emption mandate. Although the natural reading
of §9658’s text is that statutes of repose are excluded,
the Court finds additional support for its conclusion in
well-established “presumptions about the nature of
pre-emption.” Medtronic, Inc. v. Lohr, 518 U. S. 470
–485 (1996) (citing Gade v. National Solid Wastes Management
Assn., 505 U. S. 88, 111 (1992) (Kennedy, J., concurring in
part and concurring in judgment)).
States are independent sovereigns in our federal system,” the
Court “ ‘assum[es] that the historic police powers
of the States were not to be superseded by the Federal Act unless
that was the clear and manifest purpose of
Congress.’ ” Medtronic, supra, at 485 (quoting
Rice v. Santa Fe Elevator Corp., 331 U. S. 218, 230
(1947) ). It follows that “when the
text of a pre-emption clause is susceptible of more than one
plausible reading, courts ordinarily ‘accept the reading that
disfavors pre-emption.’ ” Altria Group, Inc. v.
Good, 555 U. S. 70, 77 (2008) (quoting Bates v. Dow
Agrosciences LLC, 544 U. S. 431, 449 (2005) ). That approach
is “consistent with both federalism concerns and the historic
primacy of state regulation of matters of health and safety.”
Medtronic, 518 U. S., at 485.
The effect of that
presumption is to support, where plausible, “a narrow
interpretation” of an express pre-emption provision, ibid.,
especially “when Congress has legislated in a field
traditionally occupied by the States,” Altria, supra, at 77.
The presumption has greatest force when Congress legislates in an
area traditionally governed by the States’ police powers. See
Rice, supra, at 230. “In our federal system, there is no
question that States possess the ‘traditional authority to
provide tort remedies to their citizens’ as they see
fit.” Wos v. E. M. A., 568 U. S. ___, ___ (2013) (slip
op., at 11) (quoting Silkwood v. Kerr-McGee Corp., 464 U. S.
238, 248 (1984) ).
The result of
respondents’ interpretation would be that statutes of repose
would cease to serve any real function. Respondents have not shown
the statute has the clarity necessary to justify that reading.
* * *
The judgment of the
Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit is reversed.
It is so ordered.