Issues

Article: Determining the Preemptive Effect of Federal Law on State Statutes of Repose


By Adam Bain

Statutes of repose can prevent causes of actions from arising or being enforced after a given period of time has elapsed from a defined event. In recent years, courts applying the doctrine of federal preemption have increasingly found that federal statutes removed the barriers of state statutes of repose to certain tort suits. In doing so, however, courts have not followed a consistent interpretive approach to determine whether Congress meant to preempt statutes of repose through careful consideration of congressional intent and an understanding of the reasons that state legislatures enacted the repose provisions.

This article proposes an interpretative framework for determining questions of federal preemption of state statutes of repose that gives due consideration to both the preemptive power of the federal government through the Supremacy Clause as well as the prerogatives of the state legislature to define the limits of a state’s causes of action. First, the article considers the nature of statutes of repose, particularly how they have developed as substantive rather than procedural components of state law. Second, the article discusses the different doctrines of federal preemption – express preemption, field preemption, and conflict preemption – considering application of each doctrine to questions of federal preemption of state statutes of repose. Third, the article explores how principles of statutory interpretation determine the preemptive reach of a federal statute, focusing on text-based principles, interpretive canons of construction and legislative history.

With this background, the article proposes an interpretive approach which strikes an appropriate balance between federal and state power through determining the considered intent of Congress to preempt state statutes of repose or leave them standing. This approach first considers the plain meaning of the text of the statute and any applicable “text-based” canons of interpretation. If this inquiry does not resolve the question, a court should consider whether “substantive” canons of construction can give rise to any presumption regarding preemption. The article discusses how a court should determine whether any presumption regarding preemption should apply when multiple substantive canons provide different indications of meaning. The final step in the interpretive analysis is to determine whether any presumption regarding preemption is overcome by evidence from the statutory context, the legislative history, or the purposes of the federal statute.

Finally, the article applies the interpretive approach to two ongoing conflicts in federal law regarding whether a particular federal statute preempts state statutes of repose. The conflicts concern the interpretation of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), which includes an express preemption provision and the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), which does not.

On January 10, 2014, the United States Supreme Court granted a petition for certiorari in a case that raises the issue of whether CERCLA preempts state statutes of repose. The case, Waldburger v. CTS Corporation, is discussed extensively in the article.

To read the full article by Adam Bain, click here to download the PDF. The citation for the article is as follows:

Adam Bain, Determining the Preemptive Effect of Federal Law on State Statutes of Repose, 43 U. Balt. L. Rev. 119 (2014).

Adam Bain has represented the United States in environmental tort cases in federal district and appellate courts for over twenty-five years.  He has written extensively on federal statutory, evidentiary and discovery issues, and he frequently speaks on these issues at seminars and conferences.  His prior law review articles on statutes of limitations have often been cited by academics, litigators and courts. 

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