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Massachusetts Statute of Repose for Construction Defects Did Not Bar Claim Relating to Natural Gas Fire

If you have a potential negligence claim against an individual, business, or entity of the government, it is very important to remember that Cape Cod personal injury, wrongful death, and property damage claims can be subject to both a statute of limitations and a statute of repose.

The difference between these two limitations periods is significant. A statute of limitations gives the accident victim a certain amount of time, typically calculated from the date of the accident or sometimes from the date that the injury is discovered, in which to formally file a lawsuit. (Sometimes, formal notice is also required, especially for claims against the government.) In contrast, the statute of repose may be tied to an independent event not related to the actual accident or discovery of harm, thus rendering a claim time-barred before it even happens.

The Factual Background

In a recent case, the plaintiff was the insurer of a building that sustained extensive damage due to a natural gas fire. Acting as subrogee of the building owner, the plaintiff filed suit against the defendant natural gas supplier, asserting that the defendant had been negligent in failing to detect or correct problems associated with the installation of natural gas into the building that had burned.

The defendant sought summary judgment, arguing, among other things, that the action was time barred. The trial court agreed that the defendant was entitled to judgment as a matter of law and granted the defendant’s motion. The plaintiff sought further review from the appellate court.

The Holding

On review by the Massachusetts Appeals Court, the primary issue was whether the statute of repose barred the plaintiff’s claim that the defendant failed to maintain equipment that was more than 15 years old, thus allegedly causing the fire. While acknowledging that statutes of repose are less forgiving than statutes of limitations and can strictly bar actions not commenced within a defined period after the occurrence of a key event, the reviewing tribunal disagreed with the trial court’s opinion that the defendant was entitled to summary judgment.

Under Massachusetts General Laws ch. 260, § 2B, a tort action seeking damages for negligent design, planning, construction, or general administration of an improvement to real property must be filed within six years of either 1) the opening of the improvement for use or 2) the date that the improvement was substantially completed and taken for occupancy by the owner. In the appellate court’s opinion, this statute of repose did not operate to time-bar the claim brought by the plaintiff because the gravamen of its complaint was not the “design, planning, construction, or general administration” of the gas service line. Instead, the plaintiff’s claim was that the defendant had failed to maintain the service line – which was its own property, not that of the insured – to appropriate safety standards.

In so holding, the court was unpersuaded by the defendant’s argument that the case was about an original design or construction defect, regardless of how the plaintiff phrased its claim. In the court’s view, the defendant here – unlike the typical defendant in a negligent construction case, which had no ties to the improvement once the general administration phase was over – actually owned the equipment at issue and had additional duties that a non-owner (such as a typical construction defect defendant) would not have had.

Talk to a Massachusetts Injury Lawyer

Taking timely legal action is extremely important. If your family has been hurt by an act of negligence or recklessness, call the experienced Cape Cod injury attorneys at the Law Offices of John C. Manoog, III, at 888-262-6664 to set up an appointment to discuss your claim.

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