In Stears v. Metropolitan Life Insurance Co., SJC-12544 (2019), the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court was called on to answer a certified question from the District of Massachusetts concerning whether the six-year statute of repose set forth in G.L. c. 260, § 2B bars tort claims arising from diseases, such as those arising from asbestos exposure, whose effects are unlikely to ever appear within this timeframe. In a decision which the SJC acknowledged “will have the regrettable effect” of barring these types of claims at least with respect to those protected by the statute of repose, the SJC answered that question in the affirmative.
In a decision which the SJC acknowledged “will have the regrettable effect” of barring these types of claims at least with respect to those protected by the statute of repose, the SJC answered that question in the affirmative.
The statute of repose applies to a limited category of protected actors performing particularized construction services, such as contractors, architects, engineers, and any others involved in the design, construction, or general administration of an improvement to real property. Therefore, while this ruling will not bar claims against manufacturers or suppliers of fungible goods, with respect to contractors and other design professionals who may be sued directly by an asbestos plaintiff or brought into an asbestos-related lawsuit by a third-party complaint for contribution, the Stearns decision provides a roadmap for possible early and complete favorable resolution.
The underlying lawsuit was filed in 2015 and asserted claims arising from the decedent’s exposure to asbestos in connection with the construction of two nuclear power plants in the 1970s. Defendant General Electric, designed, manufactured, and sold steam turbine generators for installation at each of the plants as well as supervised the installations. GE’s installation specifications called for the use of asbestos-containing insulation materials. Given its role on the project, GE moved for summary judgment on the grounds that plaintiff’s claims were barred by the six-year statute of repose.
Notably GE’s arguments did not carry the day at summary judgment. The federal court pointed out that the fundamental realities of asbestos-related diseases is that the effects will rarely, if ever, appear within this window. Further the dangers of asbestos exposure were well-known in the 1970s making GE’s expectation that the slate would be wiped clean after six years unreasonable.
The issue was submitted to the SJC via certified question after GE moved for reconsideration. The SJC found that the statute was “unequivocal”. The SJC reasoned that the apparent intent of the Legislature was to place an absolute time limit on the liability of those protected by the statute. Therefore, while acknowledging that the decision had the effect of causing great hardship to certain plaintiffs, the SJC found that this hardship was for the Legislature, and not the courts, to resolve.
The Stears v. Metropolitan Life Insurance Co., SJC-12544 (2019) decision may be found here at this link.