The current owners of a residential property incurred substantial cleanup costs when they discovered that heating oil had leaked from a return line that carried unburned fuel from the furnace back to the tank. They sued the previous owners for cost recovery under the Model Toxics Control Act (“MTCA”) who in turn asserted several defenses, including the MTCA innocent purchaser defense and the MTCA “domestic purpose defense.” 

The innocent purchaser defense is not available to persons who “by any act or omission, cause or contribute to the release or threatened release.” The previous owners, while admitting that oil had leaked during their ownership without their knowledge, argued that the defense was still available because they had not intentionally or negligently released the oil. The court, relying on dictionary definitions of “caused” and “contributed,” disagreed, holding that the previous owners had caused and contributed to the release simply by operating their heating system.

The court also held that the “domestic purpose defense” was not available to the previous owners. That defense is available to a resident of the dwelling “who uses a hazardous substance lawfully and without negligence for any personal or domestic purpose in or near a dwelling . . . .” Again, the court turned to the dictionary for the definition of “use” and held that the ordinary “use” of heating oil does not produce leaking of oil into the ground. “Thus, under the Act, use for a domestic purpose does not include leaking oil from defective underground pipes into the ground.”

The decision, which was not appealed, obviously makes it even more difficult for past or current owners to avail themselves of the already narrow MTCA defenses. According to this court, a person who unknowingly purchases a home with a leaking oil return line loses the innocent purchaser defense the moment they turn on the heater.