New Jersey litigation against Dupont, Chemours, Corteva, and 3M over PFAS contamination will proceed following a federal district court ruling on a 3M motion to dismiss in December 2021. The case involves contamination of four different sites in New Jersey, two of which were at issue in the motion to dismiss — 3M is not a defendant in the litigation over the other two sites. Claims against 3M were brought under New Jersey’s Spill Compensation and Control Act (the “Spill Act”) and under New Jersey common law.
In its assessment, the Court explained that the Spill Act provides that generally “any person who has discharged a hazardous substance, or is in any way responsible for any hazardous substance, shall be strictly liable, jointly and severally, without regard to fault, for all cleanup and removal costs no matter by whom incurred.” It went on to say that although the Spill Act does not define the phrase “in any way responsible for any hazardous substance,” that the Act, does, however, instruct that it is to “be liberally construed to effect its purposes.” The Court further found that another court in this district had considered a motion by 3M to dismiss another Spill Act claim in Giordano v. Solvay Specialty Polymers USA, LLC, and had found that the plaintiffs in that case had sufficiently alleged that 3M was “in any way responsible for the contaminated water supply.” It then held that Giordano was persuasive and found that the State had sufficiently “pled that 3M is ‘in any way responsible for’ the discharge of hazardous substances at both of the Sites at issue.”
Failure to Warn
New Jersey also argued that 3M owed a duty to warn the State that 3M’s PFAS-containing products could endanger New Jersey’s citizens and environment. The State asserted that this duty arose under common law from its role as parens patriae, which is the State’s authority to act for citizens who cannot protect or advance their own interests, and the duty as trustee of New Jersey’s environment and natural resources.
The Court explained that to determine whether a duty exists at common law, the New Jersey Supreme Court first asks whether it was foreseeable that a party’s conduct was capable of harming another. And then, where foreseeability has been established, the New Jersey Supreme Court assesses “the relationship of the parties, the nature of the attendant risk, the opportunity and ability to exercise care, and the public interest in the proposed solution
To assess foreseeability, the court, assessed whether it was foreseeable to 3M that its products could harm the State of New Jersey’s citizens and natural resources. Analyzing the question in the context of a motion to dismiss, the Court presumed that New Jersey’s allegations and all reasonable inferences therefrom were true and found that the State has adequately established foreseeability of the harm. The court then found that 3M did owe a duty to the state, explaining that “the Court again notes that the New Jersey Supreme Court has instructed that whether a duty exists ‘devolves to a question of foreseeability of the risk of harm to that individual or identifiable class of individuals.’ The New Jersey Supreme Court did not limit its inquiry to those with whom a defendant had a relationship.” And that, “New Jersey courts have not limited the duty to warn to those with whom a defendant has a direct relationship.” Furthermore, the Court found that the public interest also favors finding of a duty as the prevention of far-reaching environmental and human harm is of paramount public concern. The Court then held that the State had plausibly alleged a failure to warn and denied 3M’s motion to dismiss.
Finally, the Court found that New Jersey had adequately stated a claim for design defect claim. The Court explained that “to state a claim for design defect under New Jersey law, a plaintiff must plead either that the product’s risk outweighs its harm, or that an alternate design exists.” Because the State had alleged that “PFOA and PFOS have characteristics that cause extensive and persistent environmental contamination,” that “PFOA and PFOS contamination presents a serious threat to public health through drinking water,” that PFAS exposure “has been linked to several diseases, including kidney and testicular cancer, thyroid disease, ulcerative colitis, high cholesterol, and pregnancy-induced hypertension and low birth weight,” that the PFAS used at the sites “were defective in design and unreasonably dangerous” for similar reasons, and that “the foreseeable risk to public health and welfare posed by 3M’s PFAS outweighed the cost to 3M of reducing or eliminating such risk,” the Court held that New Jersey had “managed to plead enough facts to eke out a claim for a design defect.”
US District Court Judge John Michael Vazquez issued the unpublished opinion.