International Paper Co. v. Ouellette
479 U.S. 481 (1987)

  • Ouellette lived in Vermont, across the lake from International Paper in New York. Paper. The paper company produced a lot of air pollution and stinky sulfur.
  • Ouellette sued under the common law concept of the private nuisance.
  • The case ended up in Federal Court, where the Federal Trial Court refused to issue an injunction to stop the paper mill. Ouellette appealed.
    • The Federal Trial Court ruled that the Clean Water Act preempted Vermont State common law.
    • The Trial Court found that since International was compliant with the Clean Water Act, they were legally immune to State common law complaints.
      • Basically, if different States were allowed to impose separate discharge standards on polluters, the inevitable result would be a serious interference with the "full purpose and objectives of Congress," which is barred by the Constitution.
  • The US Supreme Court reversed and allowed the case to proceed to trial, but under New York law.
    • The US Supreme Court agreed that the Clean Water Act precludes a court from applying the law of an affected State against an out of State source.
    • However, the Court recognized that the Clean Water Act did allow States to set higher standards for themselves than mandated by the Clean Water Act. Therefore a lawsuit brought in the same State as the polluter would be fine.
      • Vermont can't tell a New York company what to do, but New York can tell their own residents what to do.
  • Basically, the US Supreme Court said that if you want to sue a polluter under the common law private nuisance, you have to do it in the State that the polluter is in.
  • The US Supreme Court made this ruling even though the Clean Water Act 505(e) contains a provision saying that the Act doesn't restrict any common law rights.
  • Btw, on remand, International lost and settled with Ouellette and other Vermont residents for $5M.