It is unusual to see res judicata and collateral estoppel used to preclude environmental claims, but a recent decision by the United States District Court, Northern District of Alabama (Gasden Industrial Park, LLC. v United States, 2017 WL 4387217), basing itself on the Second Circuit decision in TechnoMarine SA v Giftports, Inc., 758 F3d 493 (2d Cir. 2014), suggests that these procedural doctrines could be useful to environmental defendants.
Gadsen Industrial Park (“GIF”) purchased certain assets of a company that had operated a manufacturing facility that became a Superfund Site. Remedial work at the site by EPA and its contractors resulted in loss or damage to certain assets that GIF claimed to have purchased. A series of lawsuits ensued, some of which had GIF as a plaintiff and some as defendant. In one of the earlier litigations, GIF claimed that the contractors had taken or destroyed a rail line that GIF claimed to have purchased. That litigation ended in judgement against GIF, based on the court’s conclusion that the rail line was a fixture and therefore owned by the owner of the real property and not by GIF. GIF brought a separate action alleging the same torts (conversion and negligence) in the taking of different assets at the same site. The contractors moved to dismiss based on res judicata or claim preclusion and the court granted defendant’s motion.
Plaintiff argued that its claim was not precluded because the two claims were different – they alleged injury to different properties. The court, however, explained that claims must be brought together if they arise out of the same transaction or series of transactions. Relying on the Second Circuit decision, the court noted that claims alleging damage to different types of property would need to be brought as one claim, if they arise out of the same connected series of transactions.
In the environmental world it is not unusual to have a number of litigations arising out of contamination at the same site, as different results of the contamination are often discovered at different times. This decision suggests a broader role for issue preclusion and claim preclusion that is evident from the existing case law.