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A Contractor’s Best Friend: The Statute of Repose and Time Limits on a Homeowner’s Tort Claims

Good news for contractors, developers, and design professionals – Massachusetts’ highest court has recently confirmed that you cannot be held liable for negligent design, planning, or construction activities more than six (6) years after you finish that work.  Practically speaking, this means that a homeowner cannot make you pay them to fix mistakes (such as Code violations) if the homeowner discovers that violation more than six (6) years after you complete their project.

The Supreme Judicial Court set this precedent in two (2) recent cases:  Bridgwood v. A.J. Wood Constr., Inc., 480 Mass. 349 (2018), and Stearns v. Metropolitan Life Insurance Co., No. SJC-12544 (Mar. 1, 2019).

G.L. c. 260 § 2B is a statute of repose – a statute of repose establishes a time limit for a party (such as the homeowner in the example above) to file suit.  The clock starts to run on the once a triggering event happens (such as the creation of Code violations).  The homeowner doesn’t need to know about the violations in order to be “on the clock” for filing a suit under the statute of repose.  This differs from a statute of limitations, which requires a party to file suit within a certain amount of time after they know or should have known that the contractor’s work was negligent.  The distinction between a statute of repose and a statute of limitations is typically convoluted and based on the precise statutory language.  However, in short, the statute of repose is a better friend to the contractor than a statute of limitations.

In Bridgwood, the SJC said that G.L. c. 260 § 2B bars a homeowner from bringing claims against a contractor for violating the Home Improvement Contractor statute (c. 142A) and the Consumer Protection statute (c. 93A) where the homeowner discovers the negligent work more than six (6) years after the contractor finished working at the home.  Plaintiff Terry Bridgwood hired a contractor to renovate her home in 2000.  The contractor’s electrical work was not up to Code. Twelve years later, the faulty electrical work led to a fire that caused more than $40,000.00 worth of damage to the house.  The SJC held that the statute prevented the homeowner from pursuing her claims.  In doing so, the Court focused on the purpose of the statute of repose – “to shield contractors from the burden of liability throughout their careers and into retirement for work that had long since been completed.”

Just six months later, the SJC applied a similar line of reasoning in determining that a mesothelioma plaintiff could not pursue a claim against a contractor because the mesothelioma was not diagnosed until almost forty years after the plaintiff was allegedly exposed to asbestos by the defendant contractor.  Stearns v. Metropolitan Life Insurance Co., No. SJC-12544 (Mar. 1, 2019).  The Court held that:

“[c]onsistent with our precedent, we conclude that § 2B 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. In so doing, we recognize that, considering the latency period for asbestos-related illnesses, this will have the regrettable effect of barring all or nearly all tort claims arising from negligence in the use or handling of asbestos in construction-related suits. Nonetheless, the appropriate recourse is in the Legislature, not this court.”

The SJC’s recent decisions have made this statute of repose one of the most effective tools for contractors in combatting litigation.  Expect to see this become a more common defense in litigation involving homeowners.

(Written by Attorney Thomas Orr)