SJC Defines Application of Statute of Repose to Tort Claims

CLIENT ALERTS · March 6, 2019

Developers, owners, architects, engineers, contractors, and others involved in the construction industry should take note of a recent Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decision clarifying the application of the statute of repose.  In Stearns vs. Metro. Life Ins. Co., Mass., No. SJC-12544 (Mar. 1, 2019), the Court reconfirmed that the statute of repose completely eliminates all tort claims arising out of deficiency or neglect in the design, planning, construction, or general administration of an improvement to real property after the established time period has run, even if the cause of action results from a disease with an extended latency period, and even if a defendant had knowing control of the instrumentality or injury at the time of exposure.

The Stearns case arose after the plaintiff Wayne Oliver, a pipe inspector, was diagnosed with mesothelioma due to his exposure to asbestos during the construction of two power plants. Oliver sued General Electric (GE), which had specified the use of asbestos-containing insulation materials during construction, for negligently exposing him to asbestos. GE moved for summary judgment, arguing that the plaintiff’s claims were barred by the statute of repose, which sets a six-year time limit for tort actions arising out of any deficiency or neglect in the design, planning, construction, or general administration of an improvement to real property.

While the Court recognized that statutes of repose may impose a hardship on a plaintiff who does not suffer or discover an injury within the period permitted for initiation of suit, the Court declined to imply an exception to the statute of repose, noting that the “Legislature has fashioned an ironclad rule” that the statute of repose may not be tolled for any reason.

This decision is significant for those engaged in the construction industry, as it serves to clearly outline the application of the statute of repose to tort claims arising on or out of the construction of an improvement to real property.

If you have any questions about the information presented here, or would like to know more about how Prince Lobel can assist you with your construction law issues, contact Hugh Gorman, the author of this alert and chair of the firm’s Construction Law Practice Group, at 617.456.8093 or hgorman@princelobel.com.  Thanks to Elizabeth Farrenkopf (Northeastern 3L) who contributed to the preparation of this alert.