Meghrig v. KFC Western, Inc.

PETITIONER: Meghrig
RESPONDENT: KFC Western, Inc.
LOCATION: Rhode Island General Assembly

DOCKET NO.: 95-83
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 516 US 479 (1996)
ARGUED: Jan 10, 1996
DECIDED: Mar 19, 1996

ADVOCATES:
Daniel Romano - Argued the cause for the respondent
Jeffrey P. Minear - On behalf of the United States, as amicus curiae, supporting the petitioners
John P. Zaimes - Argued the cause for the petitioners

Facts of the case

Three years after complying with a county order to clean up petroleum contamination discovered on its property, KFC Western, Inc. brought an action under the citizen suit provision -- Section 6972 -- of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976 (RCRA) to recover its cleanup costs from the Meghrigs. KFC claimed that the contamination had previously posed an "imminent and substantial endangerment" to health or the environment and that the Meghrigs were responsible for "equitable restitution" under the Act because, as prior owners of the property, they had contributed to the contaminated site. The District Court dismissed the complaint, holding that 6972(a) does not permit recovery of past cleanup costs and that 6972 does not authorize a cause of action for the remediation of toxic waste that does not pose an "imminent and substantial endangerment" at the time suit is filed. In reversing, the Court of Appeals disagreed with the District Court on both issues.

Question

May plaintiffs use the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976 to sue and recover money they spent to clean up hazardous waste on their property?

Media for Meghrig v. KFC Western, Inc.

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

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

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the court in No. 95-83, Meghrig versus KFC Western, Inc. will be announced be announce by Justice O’Connor.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

This case comes to us on certiorari to the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

In 1988, the respondent, KFC Western was ordered by the County of Los Angeles to remove and dispose of some petroleum contaminated soil from the property surrounding a Kentucky Fried Chicken Restaurant in Los Angeles.

Three years after, the clean-up effort was completed by KFC.

KFC brought suit in Federal Court under the citizen suit probation of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the acronym fo rthat is RCRA.

It sought, to recover the cost of its clean-up effort from two previous owners of the property, Mr. and Mrs. Meghrig.

Now RCRA provides that a private party like KFC may bring suit for the clean-up of hazardous or solid waste, the Act says, “which may present an imminent and substantial endangerment to health or the environment” and RCRA allows a party suing under the provision to seek two statutory remedies.

It authorizes the District Court to restrain any person who might have contributed to a toxic waste problem or to order such person to take such other action as may be necessary.

The District Court dismissed KFC's suit under these provisions.

The District Court concluded that KFC was not suing for the remediation of any toxic waste that may present an imminent danger because KFC had already removed the petroleum waste long before filing suit.

The District Court also held that the suit was infirm because the only relief that KFC sought was the restitution of past clean-up cost which remedy, the District Court thought, was not authorized under RCRA.

The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed on both grounds.

It held that a private party can file a citizen suit under RCRA so long as it alleges that the waste in question did at one time present an imminent danger to health or the environment, and the court found that RCRA authorizes the award of past clean-up cost as a form of equitable restitution.

In the opinion of filed today, we reverse.

Based on our review of the language of the relevant provisions of the Act along with the comparison between RCRA Act and other citizen suit provisions in other Environmental Acts passed by Congress, we conclude that Congress did not intend for this Act to authorize the kind of action which KFC brought here.

The RCRA citizens suit provision was designed to allow private parties to sue for the abatement of hazardous and solid waste site that pose some imminent danger to the health or the environment.

It was not designed for private citizens who have already undertaken the clean-up to later seek reimbursement for their efforts from other responsible parties.

And the opinion for the Court is unanimous.