Court Reinstates Suit on Field Lab Contamination

Times Staff Writer

A federal appellate court reinstated a lawsuit Wednesday against two aerospace companies accused of contaminating the environment around the Santa Susana Field Laboratory near Chatsworth and causing neighbors to become sick.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in a 2-1 decision, found that newspaper articles on contamination at the site could not be used to throw out 18 of the 52 claims against Boeing North American and Rockwell International Corp. The remaining claims were rejected for other reasons.

The court ruled that jurors, not judges, should determine as an issue of fact whether the plaintiffs knew or should have known about contamination on and around the lab site within the statutory limitations for filing such a suit.

“None of the publicity from this period suggested that available evidence established contamination from the Rocketdyne facilities as the likely cause, among many possible causes, of public health problems,” Judge Richard A. Paez wrote for the majority. “The media reports and expressions of community concern about the contamination were, at best, equivocal about such a link.”


The opinion reversed an earlier decision by U.S. District Judge Audrey B. Collins. She had ruled the plaintiffs were barred by the one-year statute of limitation from proceeding to trial because they should have suspected earlier that industrial contamination from the test site had made them ill. She based that decision on newspaper articles between 1989 and 1991 on the laboratory and alleged contamination around the site.

Santa Barbara litigator A. Barry Cappello, who represented the plaintiffs, said the ruling is significant not only for his clients but for California residents who file federal claims against alleged polluters.

Boeing spokesman Dan Beck said company officials were considering whether to appeal.