Meghrig v. KFC Western, Inc. - Oral Argument - January 10, 1996

Meghrig v. KFC Western, Inc.

Media for Meghrig v. KFC Western, Inc.

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - March 19, 1996 in Meghrig v. KFC Western, Inc.

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 10, 1996 in Meghrig v. KFC Western, Inc.

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument next in No. 95-83, Alan Meghrig v. KFC Western, Inc.--

Mr. Zaimes, you may proceed whenever you're ready.

John P. Zaimes:

Thank you, Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

This case, after all the briefing on a wide range of issues, remains a statutory interpretation case, and the guidance that this Court has previously given on how to resolve such cases, particularly where Congress has provided strict... excuse me... direct indications of its intent in several ways, we think charts a very clear path for how the case should be resolved.

Let me digress for just a moment to talk about the facts in this case that are at this stage undisputed.

They are... this is still a pleading case, notwithstanding the many twists and turns that it has been through.

The case concerns a small commercial property located on a street corner in Los Angeles that was owned by petitioners from 1963 to 1975.

The petitioners sold the property to respondent in 1975.

Respondent had been a tenant on the property for about 10 years before that, since 1965, and had operated a Kentucky Fried Chicken store on the property.

In 1988 respondent decided that it would bulldoze that Kentucky Fried Chicken store and bulldoze also the strip mall that was alongside it and put a brand new store on the property... it was going to be a two-story, art deco, specially designed store... and in the course of that work discovered contamination on the property by refined petroleum product.

That was in October 1988.

The respondent fully cleaned up the contamination in a matter of months, by March 1989, and gave notice to petitioners under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, what we call RCRA in shorthand, in May 1990.

It was not, though, until December 1991, more than 3 years after the contamination had been discovered, that respondent commenced its first action in State court alleging in toto 10 different causes of action, most of them sounding in common law, but two under State statutes.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

Was the cleanup done pursuant to an order of the municipality?

John P. Zaimes:

It was done pursuant to... it was done under the supervision of the County of Los Angeles, Department of Health Services.

I don't believe that there was an order in effect at the time that the cleanup was done, but they had general oversight--

Anthony M. Kennedy:

Had a building permit been conditioned on the cleanup?

John P. Zaimes:

--I believe it had.

I believe it had.


Anthony M. Kennedy:

So, the respondent was under really a legal duty to clean up the property, at least if the building permit were going to be granted.

John P. Zaimes:

--I'm not sure if that is an allegation of the complaint, but I believe that that would have been the state of facts at the time that the cleanup was done.

After two successful demurrers by petitioners, that case went up on appeal to the State court and this action was filed in the Federal district court in LA alleging a single cause of action under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

That was in May 1992.

Now, it is Congress' intent in the citizen supervision of that statute that we are here to determine, and we believe that the congressional intent derives from several sources, including the plain words of the jurisdictional statement of the statute, other related sections of the statute, the legislative history of the statute itself--

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Well, Mr. Zaimes, there are two potential questions that I guess we might resolve, and I'm not sure if we have to resolve them both or not.

One has to do with the statutory requirement that an imminent and substantial endangerment be alleged.

John P. Zaimes:


Sandra Day O'Connor:

And that may possibly be decisive for our purposes of this case.

The other has to do with what's recoverable, assuming there is a valid claim made, and the extent of a court's equitable authority.