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UNITED STATES v. WATER QUALITY INS. SYNDICATE

July 12, 1985

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff against WATER QUALITY INSURANCE SYNDICATE, Defendant and Third-Party Plaintiff, -against- M/V COVE LEADER, her engines, boilers, tackle, etc., and COVE SHIPPING, INC., Third-Party Defendants


The opinion of the court was delivered by: GOETTEL

GOETTEL, D.J.

The Government commenced this action on October 25, 1980, to recover expenses it incurred cleaning up an oil spill. By motion, the defendant and third-party plaintiff and the third-party defendant seek to dismiss this action as time barred. For the reasons set forth below, the Court denies this motion.

I. BACKGROUND

 On February 25, 1980, approximately 630 gallons of No. 6 oil spilled from the Coastal 2505 into the Intracoastal Waterway at Tucker Bayou, Deer Park, Texas. The spill resulted from the rupture of the hose through which the Coastal 2505 was discharging the oil. The United States and private contractors, whom the Government hired, cleaned up the spill. *fn1" The cleanup was completed on or around March 4, 1980, at a cost to the United States of approximately $30,133.54.

 Almost four and a half years later, on October 25, 1984, the United States commenced this action pursuant to section 311 of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act ("FWPCA"), 33 U.S.C. § 1321, to recover the cleanup costs from Coastal Towing, Inc., the owner and operator of Coastal 2505, and Water Quality Insurance Syndicate ("WQIS"), the insurer of Coastal 2505. *fn2" The Government voluntarily dismissed the action against Coastal Towing on November 13, 1984. Defendant WQIS filed an answer asserting several affirmative defenses. It also filed a third-party complaint against the M/V Cove Leader and her owner, Cove Shipping, Inc. ("Cove"), in which WQIS alleged that the rupture of the hose and oil spill resulted solely from the excessive speed and wake wash of the passing Cove Leader.

 WQIS now moves for an order granting summary judgment and dismissing the action on the grounds that it is barred by the three-year statute of limitations for tort actions contained in 28 U.S.C. § 2415(b). Cove joins in this motion.

 The United States contends that no statute of limitations applies to actions brought on behalf of the United States to enforce the statutory FWPCA remedy created by 33 U.S.C. § 1321(f)(1). Alternatively, the United States contends that if a statute of limitations applies, it is the six-year provision for contract actions contained in 28 U.S.C. § 2415(a).

 II. DISCUSSION

 A. Sovereign Immunity

 The doctrine of sovereign immunity provides that the United States as a plaintiff is not bound by any statute of limitations unless Congress provides otherwise. Guaranty Trust Co. v. United States, 304 U.S. 126, 132, 82 L. Ed. 1224, 58 S. Ct. 785 (1981); Federal Maritime Commission v. Caragher, 364 F.2d 709, 718 (2d Cir. 1966). The FWPCA contains no statute of limitations applicable to a cleanup cost recovery action brought by the United States under 33 U.S.C. § 1321(f)(1). The Government thus argues that no statute of limitations applies to this action. In enacting the FWPCA, Congress intended to shift the cost of oil spills away from the public and toward those who engage in enterprises that use the navigable waters and give rise to oil pollution. See United States v. Coastal States Crude Gathering Co., 643 F.2d 1125, 1128 (5th Cir. 1981). The courts should not restrict this cost-shifting intent and the remedial nature of the FWPCA, argues the Government, by applying 28 U.S.C. § 2415 to the instant action.

 The Government has not cited a case that held 28 U.S.C. § 2415 inapplicable to FWPCA actions, nor have we found any. The courts that have considered the issue of the appropriate limitations period have either rejected or not considered the Government's argument that it is not subject to any limitations. We also reject the Government's argument.

 The legislative history of 28 U.S.C. § 2415 indicates that the purpose of the statute was to establish statutes of limitations on certain broad types of governmental claims. See Statute of Limitation Act: Hearings on H.R. 13652 [sic] Before the Subcomm. of the House Comm. in the Judiciary, 89th Cong., 2d Sess., ser. 15 at 6-7 (1966) (statement of John M. Douglas, Assistant Attorney General). "[I]t is only right that the law should provide a period of time within which the Government must bring suits on claims just as it now does to claims of private individuals." S. Rep. No. 1328, 89th Cong., 2d Sess. 1, reprinted in 1966 U.S. Code Cong. & Ad. News 2502, 2503. As stated in the report by the Committee on the Judiciary of the House of Representatives:

 
Statutes of Limitation have the salutary effect of requiring litigants to institute suits within a reasonable time of the incident or situation upon which the action is based. In this way the issues presented at the trial can be decided at a time when the necessary witnesses, documents, and other evidence are still available. At the same time, the witnesses are better able to testify concerning the facts involved for their memories have not been dimmed by the passage of time. The committee feels that the prompt resolution of the matters covered by the bill is necessary to an orderly and fair administration of justice. Stale claims can neither be effectively presented nor adjudicated in a manner which is fair to the parties involved.

 1966 U.S. Code Cong. & Ad. News 2502, 2503. *fn3" Thus, section 2415 was enacted "to establish statutes of limitations which will apply to contract and tort actions brought by the United States." S. Rep. No. 1328, 89th ...


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