United States v. Bestfoods

The United States brought this action under § 107(a)(2) of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA) against, among others, respondent CPC International Inc., the parent corporation of the defunct Ott Chemical Co. (Ott II), for the costs of cleaning up industrial waste generated by Ott II’s chemical plant. Section 107(a)(2) authorizes suits against, among others, “any person who at the time of disposal of any hazardous substance owned or operated any facility.” The trial focused on whether CPC, as a parent corporation, had “owned or operated” Ott II’s plant within the meaning of § 107(a)(2). The District Court said that operator liability may attach to a parent corporation both indirectly, when the corporate veil can be pierced under state law, and directly, when the parent has exerted power or influence over its subsidiary by actively participating in, and exercising control over, the subsidiary’s business during a period of hazardous waste disposal. Applying that test, the court held CPC liable because CPC had selected Ott II’s board of directors and populated its executive ranks with CPC officials, and another CPC official had played a significant role in shaping Ott II’s environmental compliance policy. The Sixth Circuit reversed. Although recognizing that a parent company might be held directly liable under § 107(a)(2) if it actually operated its subsidiary’s facility in the stead of the subsidiary, or alongside of it as a joint venturer, that court refused to go further. Rejecting the District Court’s analysis, the Sixth Circuit explained that a parent corporation’s liability for operating a facility ostensibly operated by its subsidiary depends on whether the degree to which the parent controls the subsidiary and the extent and manner of its involvement with the facility amount to the abuse of the corporate form that will warrant piercing the corporate veil and disregarding the separate corporate entities of the parent and subsidiary. Applying Michigan veil-piercing law, the court decided that CPC was not liable for controlling Ott II’s actions, since the two corporations maintained separate personalities and CPC did not utilize the subsidiary form to perpetrate fraud or subvert justice.

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