Appellate Division Approves Equitable Relief to Plaintiff Seeking Contribution under the New Jersey Spill Compensation and Control Act

By:  Paul W. Lanza

 

In Matejek v. Gilmore, et al., Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division, Docket No. A-4683-14T1, the Appellate Division affirmed the Trial Court’s ruling which ordered defendants to share in costs for investigating and possibly remediating an alleged oil contamination.  Approximately ten years ago, oil was found on the surface of a tributary in Hillsborough, New Jersey.  Thereafter, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) removed five underground storage tanks, one from each of five adjoining condominium units.  However, the NJDEP took no further action, other than a site visit to confirm the absence of oil in the tributary several months later.  In fact, the NJDEP’s file remained open, which constituted a cloud on the title to all five condominium units.
 
Plaintiffs, owners of one of the condominium units, sued the owners of the other four units, seeking a judgment to compel the other owners to participate in, and equally share in, an investigation, and, if necessary, remediation of the property.  After a bench trial, the Trial Court granted plaintiffs’ demand for relief and ordered all the unit owners to equally share in the investigation and possible remediation, finding that the fact that the NJDEP had removed all five tanks was sufficient to impose an obligation on the impacted parties to participate.
 
Defendants-Appellants argued that plaintiff lacked standing to bring suit to compel investigation and cleanup under the Spill Act, the Trial Court lacked jurisdiction to enter the judgment, and the Spill Act does not permit and the facts did not warrant the relief granted.  The Appellate Division, however, affirmed, holding that the circumstances did not preclude the imposition of an equitable remedy because, if appellants’ arguments were sustained, plaintiffs would have no way to remove the encumbrance from their title other than to solely bear the expense of investigation and remediation.  Additionally, the Appellate Division found that the equitable relief granted furthered the best interests of the public in compelling a further investigation into a public health, safety and welfare issue, i.e. a potential ongoing oil contamination.
 
This decision reflects an important balance between the goals and purposes of the Spill Act and the problems it can create for private parties.  As the burden for completing a cleanup has been shifted to private parties through legislative reform, the judiciary has recognized that this can lead to an inequitable outcome for private parties, and, therefore, inventive, equitable remedies may become necessary in circumstances such as those present in this case.