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March 27, 2019

Legal Update
Anthony V. Agudelo

SJC rules six year statute of repose “unequivocally” bars asbestos claims

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On March 1, 2019, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) ruled that the six (6) year statute of repose set forth in G.L. c. 260, § 2b is “unequivocal” even where its application bars personal injury and wrongful death asbestos claims with known extended latency periods.

G.L. c. 260, § 2b states that “in no event” shall an action of “tort arising out of any deficiency or neglect in the design, planning, construction or general administration of an improvement to real property” be commenced “more than six years after the earlier of: (1) the opening of the improvement to use; or (2) substantial completion of the improvement and the taking possession for occupancy by the owner.”

Faced with whether G.L. c. 260, § 2b barred decedent’s estate from bringing a claim against General Electric (“GE”) alleging that, 25 years prior, GE negligently exposed decedent to asbestos during the construction of power plants, causing him to contract mesothelioma, Judge Zobel of the United States District Court for the District Court for Massachusetts certified the question to the SJC.  Specifically, the SJC considered whether G.L. c. 260, § 2b bars tort claims arising from diseases with extended latency periods, such as those associated with asbestos exposure.

Citing its precedent, the SJC held that in writing G.L. c. 260, § 2b, the Massachusetts Legislature fashioned an “ironclad rule” that places an “absolute time limit on the liability of those within its protection” even if the plaintiff’s injury does not occur, or is not discovered, until after the statute’s time limit has expired.  While acknowledging that the application of G.L. c. 260, § 2b to asbestos claims renders a “harsh reality,” the SJC noted that the primary objective in enacting G.L. c. 260, § 2b  was to limit the liability of architects, engineers, contractors, and others involved in the design, planning, construction, or general administration of an improvement to real property.

The SJC noted that the Legislature had, in other circumstances, crafted exceptions to specific statutes of repose (see G. L. c. 260, § 4 (statute of repose applicable to medical malpractice actions excludes actions arising from foreign object left in body)).  By contrast, the SJC held that G.L. c. 260, § 2b had no exceptions and is “unequivocal.”   Accordingly, the SJC refused to concoct an exception to G.L. c. 260, § 2b’s six year limitation for asbestos related cases, where it determined it was clearly the Legislature’s exclusive prerogative to do so.

Stearns v. Metropolitan Life Ins. Co., SJC-12544

Sugarman Rogers has a long history of successfully defending companies which have been sued by those alleging that they contracted illnesses from asbestos present in a wide-variety of products. Please contact Tony Agudelo if you would like additional information.