Court: Class-action suit against Marathon can continue

Michael Gerstein
The Detroit News

Residents living near the Marathon Petroleum Company’s oil refinery in southwest Detroit can take their case forward after a federal appeals court ruled Thursday that the case can’t be dismissed “on statute-of-limitations grounds.”

The U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously ruled that a district court was wrong when it determined that plaintiffs’ claims of injury due to harmful air pollution from the oil giant fell past a statute of limitations because the harm occurred three years before they first filed suit.

A three-judge panel argued that the company is continuously pumping out harmful pollution and that residents’ complaints include “both past and present wrongful conduct.”

Residents filed a class-action suit in February 2016, alleging that the refinery’s pollution “contaminated their property and constituted a private nuisance,” according to federal court opinion signed by Judges Deborah Cook, Raymond Kethledge and Bernice Donald.

Cook and Kethledge were both appointed by former President George W. Bush. Donald was appointed former President Bill Clinton.

Plaintiffs in the case argued that the refinery resulted in “the generation, creation, release, emission and discharge of refinery contaminants, hazardous substances, noise, odors, vapors, soot, dirt and fumes,” the opinion continued.

A Marathon spokesman declined comment.

Southwest Detroit residents have long complained of foul air quality. The state has documented that Detroit has a higher overall asthma rate than the rest of the state, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

But Marathon argued that the complaint fell outside of a three-year statute of limitations because the injuries in question were incurred more than three years before the plaintiffs sued the company. They also said the plaintiffs did not have enough facts to support their claims.

The court ruled that “each discharge is a violation giving rise to a separate claim,” noting that Marathon continuously discharges pollutants into the air.

A lower district court previously ruled that because plaintiffs did not specify when their alleged injuries first occurred, the court can’t know whether they were less than three years ago and fell within the statute of limitations.

But the federal appeals court rejected that reasoning.

“Any claims for alleged discharges occurring prior to February 22, 2013, are timely,” the opinion said. “The district court therefore erred in dismissing the complaint as time-barred.”

Meanwhile, the state moved to reduce emissions at the refinery in 2016 by approving two new air permits that cut the amount of sulfer dioxide that can be released. The changes were required under new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards.

The company vowed that year to spend $10 million to cut back on pollution.