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COOPER INDUSTRIES, INC. v. AVIALL SERVICES, INC., 543 U.S. ---

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COOPER INDUSTRIES, INC. v. AVIALL SERVICES, INC.

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FIFTH CIRCUIT

No. 02-1192.Argued October 6, 2004--Decided December 13, 2004

The enabling clause of §113(f)(1) of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA), as added by the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act of 1986 (SARA), provides that any person "may" seek contribution from any other person liable or potentially liable under CERCLA §107(a) "during or following any civil action" under CERCLA §106 (which authorizes the Federal Government to compel responsible parties to clean up contaminated areas, see Key Tronic Corp. v. United States, 511 U. S. 809, 814), or CERCLA §107(a) (which empowers the Government to recover its response costs from potentially responsible persons (PRPs)). Section 113(f)(1)'s saving clause provides: "Nothing in this subsection shall diminish the right of any person to bring an action for contribution in the absence of a civil action under" §106 or §107. SARA also created a separate express right of contribution, §113(f)(3)(B), for "[a] person who has resolved its liability to the United States or a State for some or all of a response action or for some or all of the costs of such action in an administrative or judicially approved settlement."

Cooper Industries, Inc., owned four Texas properties until 1981, when it sold them to Aviall Services, Inc. After operating those sites for several years, Aviall discovered that both it and Cooper had contaminated them when hazardous substances leaked into the ground and ground water. Aviall notified the State of the contamination, but neither the State nor the Federal Government took judicial or administrative measures to compel cleanup. Aviall cleaned up the properties under the State's supervision and sold them to a third party, but remains contractually responsible for $5 million or more in cleanup costs. Aviall filed this action against Cooper to recover such costs. The original complaint asserted, inter alia, a claim for cost recovery under §107(a) and a separate claim for contribution under §113(f)(1). Aviall later amended the complaint to, among other things, combine its two CERCLA claims into a single, joint claim that, pursuant to §113(f)(1), sought contribution from Cooper as a PRP under §107(a). Granting Cooper summary judgment, the District Court held that Aviall had abandoned its freestanding §107 claim, and that contribution under §113(f)(1) was unavailable because Aviall had not been sued under §106 or §107. The Fifth Circuit ultimately reversed, holding that §113(f)(1) allows a PRP to obtain contribution from other PRPs regardless of whether the PRP has been sued under §106 or §107. The court reasoned in part that "may" in §113(f)(1)'s enabling clause did not mean "may only."


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