The Entire Controversy Doctrine and Environmental Cleanup Costs
The entire controversy doctrine is a procedural rule applied in New Jersey and other jurisdictions that requires any party to a lawsuit to bring all of its claims that relate to the same set of underlying facts in one single suit. In several recent cases (decided August, 1995), the New Jersey Supreme Court reaffirmed and strengthened this doctrine. The doctrine applies to both plaintiffs and defendants, and even requires the assertion of claims against persons or businesses not otherwise involved in the lawsuit. Awareness of the entire controversy doctrine is very important, as any potential claims that are not brought as part of the original lawsuit will be barred, and forever lost.
In the context of a suit for recovery of environmental cleanup costs, the doctrine dictates that a party must assert claims against every possible person who might have contributed to the contamination, or is in any way liable to that party to pay for some of the costs. This might well include, for example, malpractice claims against any consultants, engineers, and even attorneys, who participated in the events leading to the contamination, and any related transactions. The doctrine may also require the inclusion of claims against potentially responsible insurance carriers.
The recent Supreme Court cases emphasize that the practical effect of the entire controversy doctrine is that every party involved in litigation must fully evaluate all of its potential rights and claims with respect to any fact or issue that is (or may be) litigated in the case. A conscious decision must be made for each potential claim, to determine whether it is worth litigating, or whether it should be knowingly waived.