Posted May 15, 2020. To settle a pandemic-related financial crisis at UMass Dartmouth, law faculty are not receiving research compensation in summer 2020. I will be away from my desk, May 16 to August 15. Blog posts will be sparse, and I will not receive email. On the upside, summer 🌞! If you need to reach me, please send a message through the faculty assistants’ office (Ms. Cain and Ms. Rittenhouse). Stay thirsty.

Friday, March 1, 2019

Statute of repose bars asbestos claim, despite long latency of illness, Mass. high court rules

Pilgrim Nuclear Station, Plymouth, Mass. (by NRCgov, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
Answering a certified question from the federal district court, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) held unanimously today that a state statute of repose for personal injury claims bars a mesothelioma negligence suit against General Electric (GE) in the case of a former nuclear-plant construction worker exposed to asbestos.  The case is Stearns v. Metropolitan Life Insurance Co., No. SJC-12544 (Mass. Mar. 1, 2019) (PDF), certified by No. 1:15-cv-13490-RWZ (D. Mass. May 14, 2018).

Whereas the time limit of a statute of limitations runs from the time a would-be plaintiff becomes or should become aware that he or she has suffered an injury, a statute of repose sets a hard deadline contingent on an objectively verifiable event, irrespective of the plaintiff's experience.  Massachusetts law has a statute of repose, Mass. Gen. L. ch. 260, § 2B, that is generous to the construction industry, relative to other states' laws.  When personal injury arises from improvement to real property, tort claims are barred six years after the improvement is opened to use.

Wayne Oliver
Brockton, Mass., native Wayne F. Oliver worked as a pipe inspector for a contractor of GE on the installation of turbine generators at the Pilgrim Nuclear Station at Plymouth, Massachusetts, and at the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant in Maryland in the 1970s.  Installation specifications called for the use of asbestos insulation, to which Oliver was exposed over the course of years.  In April 2015, Oliver was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a known health consequence of asbestos exposure, and in July 2016, at age 67, he died.

Plaintiffs in some toxin claims have trouble navigating statutes of limitations, because litigants dispute when an ill plaintiff should have realized that the illness was consequent to exposure.  Suing and non-natural causation are not necessarily the first thoughts of a patient diagnosed with cancer.  But mesothelioma victims often surmount statutes of limitations hurdles, because the disease has a long latency period, and then, as in Oliver's case, manifests onset and death in short order.  Statutes of repose then become problematic in cases arising from construction exposures.

Piping in turbine building at Russian nuclear power plant, 1986
(RIA Novosti archive, image #447414, by Petrouhyn, CC-BY-SA 3.0).

The SJC in Stearns recognized the well accepted proposition that statutes of repose may work a corrective injustice against injured plaintiffs, especially in case of diseases with long latency periods.  But the greater policy aim of statutes of repose is to time-limit liability for commercial actors, lest productive development become unaffordable for fear of perpetual liability exposure.

Contingent on objectively verifiable events, statutes of repose tend to be unforgiving of lapses in time.  The SJC observed that various statutes of repose in Massachusetts have not yielded in prior cases, even upon a defendant's intentional wrongdoing or fraudulent concealment of danger, or a victim's mental illness or ongoing medical treatment.  The statute of repose for medical malpractice contains an exception in the event of a foreign object left in a person's body, so, the SJC reasoned, the legislature knows how to make an exception when it wants to.  The statute of repose in construction is "ironclad."
Associate Justice Cypher

In a footnote, the court added:
The plaintiffs point out that a number of other State Legislatures have effectively exempted asbestos-related illnesses from their respective statutes of repose concerning improvements to real property. We encourage our Legislature to consider doing the same should it determine that such an exception is consonant with the Commonwealth's public policy.

The opinion in Stearns was authored by SJC Associate Justice Elspeth B. Cypher, a Pittsburgh native.  In the fall 2019 semester at UMass Law School, Justice Cypher is scheduled tentatively to co-teach, with former dean Robert V. Ward, Jr., Race, Women’s Rights, Gender Identity and the Law.

Upon Oliver's death in 2016, the family asked for donations to the Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation, in lieu of flowers.

No comments:

Post a Comment