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Saturday, July 9, 2022

Tort-contract distinction cannot block damage multiplier, Mass. high court holds in lease dispute

Photo by Yonkers Honda CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr
A landlord may not rely on a limitation-of-liability provision in a commercial lease to evade a damage multiplier under Massachusetts consumer protection law, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled in January, regardless of whether the case is characterized as tort or contract.

The dispute arose between plaintiff-tenant Majestic Honda and its LLC landlord, owned by Alfredo Dos Anjos. Majestic accused the defendant of bad-faith lease termination, and the trial court agreed.

Massachusetts General Laws chapter 93A, under which Majestic brought its case, is a famously potent statutory remedy. Ostensibly its section 11 is a consumer protection law like any of the unfair trade practices prohibitions found throughout the states. But the statute has been read broadly in Massachusetts to operate at or beyond the margins of what lawyers usually regard as "consumer protection."

Moreover, section 11 authorizes double and treble damage awards upon "willful or knowing" misconduct. Massachusetts does not recognize punitive damages at common law, only by statute. Chapter 93A also has a four-year statute of limitations, sometimes an advantage to plaintiffs over the usual Massachusetts limitations period of three years for most tort actions.

Thus, as a result of permissive construction and powerful incentives for plaintiffs, chapter 93A is invoked frequently in what would be merely common law tort cases in other states, even to the exclusion of the common law claim in Massachusetts. Chapter 93A also is used in public enforcement, as in the Attorney General's present litigation to hold Big Oil accountable for climate change.

Tort and contract claims can be subsumed into the same 93A framework, blurring the classical distinction. The distinction is especially weak in product liability cases, in which Massachusetts plaintiffs almost always rely on 93A, in part because the commonwealth has recognized strict product liability as an extension of quasi-contractual warranty rather than as an evolution of common law negligence.

I am not a Massachusetts lawyer, and I am careful to disclaim to my 1L torts students that I am not well versed in 93A practice. It is its own field and cannot be folded into tort fundamentals. But, I admonish, they should endeavor to learn more if they intend to practice tort litigation in Massachusetts. My supremely talented colleague Professor Jim Freely once regularly taught a 93A course, but I don't think it's been offered since he was drafted (no pun intended) into the legal skills program.

Insofar as section 93A's damage multiplier is punitive in nature, it should not be disclaimable by a tort defendant, else the legislature's intended deterrent effect would be rendered moot. Upon this logic, the Massachusetts Appeals Court looked in past cases to discern whether the plaintiff's claim analogized more closely to tort or contract, to determine whether a limitation-of-liability provision should be allowed to nullify extraordinary statutory damages.

In fairness to the Appeals Court, the Supreme Judicial Court did roughly the same thing in 2018 when it applied a statute of repose for tort claims arising from real property to a 93A action, even though 93A itself has no repose period; three justices dissented from that ruling.

Here, the analogical approach is wrong, the Supreme Judicial Court decided unanimously. The court wrote, per Justice Scott Kafker, "Because G. L. c. 93A establishes causes of action that blur the distinction between tort and contract claims, incorporating elements of both, we do not adopt this formulation." The court further explained,

Our cases have also pointed out that a c. 93A claim is difficult to pigeonhole into discrete tort or contract categories, as c. 93A violations tend to involve elements of both tort and breach of contract, blurring the lines between the two. As we explained in [prior cases], "[t]he relief available under c. 93A is 'sui generis,'" being "neither wholly tortious nor wholly contractual in nature." Hence, a "cause of action under c. 93A is 'not dependent on traditional tort or contract law concepts for its definition.'"

After all, the court reasoned, the legislative intention to deter willful or knowing misconduct is not a function of whether the wrong is a tort or a breach of contract.

At a theoretical level, the vast gray area of 93A in Massachusetts law might have broader implications for the classical distinction between tort and contract, namely, whether the distinction will or should persist at all in contemporary common law. Massachusetts 93A practice might prove instructive as courts in many common law jurisdictions, such as Canada, reconsider the vitality of the so-called "economic loss rule," a historic marker of the tort-contract distinction that forbade tort actions in the absence of physical injury or damage.

The case is H1 Lincoln, Inc. v. South Washington Street, LLC, No. SJC-13088 (Mass. Jan. 24, 2022).

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