SJC Rules Statute of Repose Applies to Asbestos-Related Disease Lawsuits in Massachusetts
In a unanimous decision that will reshape future asbestos litigation in Massachusetts, the Supreme Judicial Court held that the Massachusetts statute of repose bars “all or nearly all tort claims arising from negligence in the use or handling of asbestos in construction-related suits” after six years. The statute of repose was enacted to protect contractors, architects, and others from being sued based on decades-old construction projects.
The SJC’s decision came in response to a certified question from the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts in Stearns v. Metropolitan Life Ins. Co. The plaintiffs alleged that Wayne Oliver’s death from mesothelioma was caused by his exposure to asbestos during construction of two nuclear power plants in the 1970s. Mr. Oliver was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2015 and died in 2016. General Electric allegedly “designed, manufactured, and sold” steam turbine generators used in the power plants. Mr. Oliver was a pipe inspector at the power plants and was present while insulation was “cut, mixed, and applied to certain piping systems and equipment” on the turbines. He worked around the alleged asbestos-containing insulation on the GE turbines from 1971 to 1978. The plaintiffs filed their lawsuit in 2015, thirty-seven years after Mr. Oliver last worked around the GE turbines at issue. GE moved for summary judgment, arguing that the plaintiffs’ claims were barred by the six-year statute of repose.
In opposition to GE’s motion, the plaintiffs alleged that the statute of repose did not apply “to cases involving diseases with extended latency periods” because it would extinguish claims before they become cognizable. Latent diseases may take decades to develop. For instance, mesothelioma can develop many years after someone inhales a sufficient quantity of asbestos to contract the disease. The U.S. District Court judge found that GE’s turbines, “including their insulation materials, were ‘indisputably’ improvements to real property under the statute.” However, the judge denied GE’s summary judgment motion because she believed that the legislature did not intend to bar claims for latent diseases.
In an interesting twist, the U.S. District Court judge only certified the question to the SJC because the plaintiffs requested that she do so in their opposition to GE’s motion for reconsideration/certification for an appeal to the First Circuit. Writing for the Supreme Judicial Court, Associate Justice Elspeth B. Cypher answered the certified question:
[The statute of repose] completely eliminates all tort claims arising out of any 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 arises from a disease with an extended latency period and even if a defendant had knowing control of the instrumentality of injury at the time of exposure.
The Court determined that the statute’s language was both “unambiguous” and “unequivocal.” The legislative intent was “to place an absolute time limit on the liability of those protected by the statute.” Yet, she continued, “[t]he plaintiffs are requesting that we imply exceptions to [the statute] where there are none. We decline to do so.” Instead, “it is the Legislature’s exclusive prerogative to” carve out such an exception.
The repercussions of this ruling will have an immediate impact on contractors, engineers, and architects sued in latent-disease cases. But because the statute of repose generally does not protect suppliers and manufacturers involved in asbestos-related cases, the Stearns decision would not be applicable to them.
We will continue to provide you with updates about significant legal issues in New England and across the United States. Please contact David M. Governo or Vincent N. DePalo if you would like a copy of the slip opinion or to discuss the impact of this decision on your company.