Cities Lack Standing in MBTE Lawsuit

State of New Hampshire v. Cities of Dover and Portsmouth
State of New Hampshire v. Cities of Dover and Portsmouth
No. 2005-552
Wednesday, January 18, 2006

The State of New Hampshire brought suit against gasoline designers, manufacturers and refiners alleging that the gasoline additive methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) had polluted the state’s ground and surface waters. When the City of Dover and the City of Portsmouth filed similar actions, the state objected, arguing that because it has parens patriae standing, the cities’ suits must yield to the state’s suit. Parens patriae is a concept of standing utilized to allow the state to protect “quasi-sovereign” interests such as the health, comfort and welfare of its citizens, interstate water rights and the general economy of the state.

MTBE was first added to gasoline in the late 1970s to combat air pollution. It is more soluble than other gasoline components and thus spreads more easily into water supplies, the water table and underground aquifers. Since 1990 numerous governmental and private plaintiffs have sued MTBE producers and distributors. In September 2003, the state, through the office of the attorney general, brought suit in superior court against 30 out-of-state MTBE and gasoline manufacturers. In October 2003, the City of Portsmouth filed suit against 61 MTBE entities, including various in-state entities not included in the state’s suit. In November 2003, the City of Dover filed a similar suit against the same 61 entities Portsmouth filed against. The state filed a petition for a declaratory judgment asking the superior court to dismiss the cities’ cases. The trail court ruled that the state has parens patriae standing and that the doctrine of parens patriae required the cities’ suit to yield to the state’s suit. The cities’ suits were dismissed.

On appeal, the cities argued that: 1) the state did not meet the requirements for asserting parens patriae standing; 2) even if the state has parens patriae standing, the cities have a compelling interest in maintaining separate suits against the MTBE defendants; 3) the ruling contravenes a comprehensive statutory framework, by which the legislature has authorized and directed municipalities to bring MTBE contamination suits; and 4) requiring the cities’ suits to yield to the state’s suit violated the cities’ constitutional right to certain and complete remedy and the separation doctrine.

Noting that it has never been asked to define the limits of the state’s parens patriae authority, the Court discussed a two-part test used by other courts to determine whether a state has parens patriae standing to bring an action. First, the state must assert an injury to a “quasi sovereign” interest, an interest apart from the interests of particular private parties. Second, the state must allege injury to a “substantial segment” of its population. Finding that the state has a quasi-sovereign interest in protecting the health and well-being of its residents with respect to the statewide water supply and that the data on MTBE contamination has directly affected a substantial portion of the population of New Hampshire, the Court concluded that the state has parens patriae standing to bring the suits on behalf of the residents of New Hampshire.

The cities argued that they have a compelling interest in maintaining separate litigation because the state’s suit does not represent their interests. Rejecting the cities’ position, the Court found that the cities’ interests are properly represented by the state. Similarly, the Court rejected the cities’ arguments with regard to the statutory framework and constitutional challenges. The Court affirmed the trail court’s dismissal of the cities’ cases against the MTBE and gasoline designers, manufacturers and refiners.