On March 1, 2019, in Stearns v. Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts held that the six year statute of repose, set forth in Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 260, § 2B, bars tort claims arising from negligence in the use or handling of asbestos in construction related suits. In so holding, the Court has rendered such suits nonactionable in light of the long latency period for asbestos-related injuries.
The genesis of this ruling began with Wayne Oliver’s diagnosis of malignant mesothelioma in early 2015. Several months later he commenced the underlying action in Superior Court before passing away from the disease in 2016. It was alleged that Mr. Oliver’s mesothelioma resulted from exposure to asbestos during the construction of two nuclear power plants in the 1970s. Defendant, General Electric Company (G.E.), designed, manufactured and sold steam turbine generators to both plants. G.E. supervised the installation of the turbines, and its installation specifications called for the use of asbestos-containing insulation. Mr. Oliver, who worked as a pipe inspector, was allegedly present while the insulation was cut, mixed and applied to certain piping and equipment in the turbine halls of each plant, exposing him to asbestos dust between 1971 and 1978. His suit alleged that G.E. had negligently exposed him to asbestos during the construction of the plants and caused him to contract mesothelioma.
The case was removed to the Federal District Court where G.E. moved for summary judgment on the ground that the claims against it were barred by M.G.L. c. 260, § 2B. This statute provides in relevant part:
Action[s] of tort for damages arising out of any deficiency or neglect in the design, planning, construction or general administration of an improvement to real property…shall be commenced only within three years next after the cause of action accrues; provided, however, that in no event shall such actions be commenced more than six years after the earlier of the dates of: (1)the opening of the improvement to use; or (2) substantial completion of the improvement and the taking of possession for occupancy by the owner.
The judge found that G.E.’s turbine generators were “indisputably” improvements to real property under the statute but, nevertheless, denied G.E.’s motion, because it was “not at all clear that the statute was designed to bar a category of claims known uniformly to have a latency period of at least 20 years.” G.E. subsequently moved to certify the ruling for interlocutory appeal to the United States Court of Appeals. The plaintiffs opposed interlocutory appeal but, in the event of any such appeal, moved instead for certification to the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts.
In responding to the certified question, the higher court held that the language of M.G.L. c. 260, § 2B is unequivocal and went on to state that, “[t]he Legislature has fashioned an ironclad rule, and we will not read into it any exception that the Legislature did not see fit to put there, whether by inadvertence or design.” The Court further stated its “obligation is to adhere to the terms of the statute and not upon imaginary equitable considerations to escape from the positive declarations of the text. If so doing results in any inconvenience or hardships [to plaintiffs that have suffered injury and have meritorious claims], then it is for the Legislature, not for the court, to resolve.”
Now there can be no doubt that M.G.L. c. 260, § 2B completely eliminates all tort claims arising out of any negligence in the in the design, planning, construction or general administration of an improvement to real property after the six year statute of repose has passed even if the cause of action arises from an asbestos-related disease that could not have been discovered within the allotted timeframe; while certainly a beneficial ruling to many, it is important to note that suppliers and materialmen are not included in the class of persons protected from suit under M.G.L. c. 260, § 2B. In addition, Massachusetts has not limited products liability actions with a statute of repose.