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Common Law Recovery of Cleanup Cost for Petroleum Spills

New York's Oil Spill Act, Article 12 of the New York Navigation Law, provides a natural and attractive starting point for people seeking to recover cleanup costs for petroleum spills. The Act's imposition of strict liability holds out the promise of avoiding litigation over events and states of mind for which little or contradictory evidence exists, or that may be vulnerable to highly subjective interpretation long after the fact. Under the Oil Spill Act, if someone's actions caused or contributed to a discharge of petroleum, he is liable for its cleanup, without regard to his state of mind or relationship to others at the time. However, the Oil Spill Act's powerful mechanism of strict liability is not available to everyone who may have been forced to pay for a cleanup of an oil spill. For instance, property owners who are unaware that a fuel oil tank on their property is leaking oil are nevertheless at fault for the spill under the Oil Spill Act, and therefore may not seek full recovery of their cleanup costs from others who may bear more responsibility for the leaky tank. For such a property owner, the only available recourse under the Oil Spill Act may be a contribution action, under which the property owner could only recover part of the total cleanup costs. 

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