Showing posts with label statute of limitations. Show all posts
Showing posts with label statute of limitations. Show all posts

Monday, May 17, 2021

Statute of repose fells tort claim dressed in contract

A farm house in Glocester, R.I.

Immersed in grading perdition in recent weeks, I fell behind in my usually steady diet of popular culture.  Better late than never, I offer, here and in two subsequent posts, for your amazement and amusement, an overdue eclectic assortment of three savory news pickins.

Back in January, remember January? Capitol Riot, Inauguration, that one, the Rhode Island Supreme Court held that the state's 10-year statute of repose and three-year statute of limitations on tort actions for latent defects in real property apply to homeowners who purchased from the builder.  The plaintiff-homeowners purchased their lakefront home in northwestern Rhode Island from the builder in 1997, and they discovered extensive water damage to the lake-facing wall of the house in 2012.  They attributed the damage to improper workmanship and materials.  Because they purchased from the builder, the plaintiffs tried to escape the statute of repose by characterizing their action for breach of implied warranty of habitability as sounding in contract law rather than tort law.  The court disagreed, deciding that the design of the law was to limit builder liability, regardless of whether the plaintiff was an original or subsequent purchaser.  The case is Mondoux v. Vanghel, No. 2018-219-Appeal (R.I. Jan. 27, 2021).  Hat tip to Nicole Benjamin and Crystal Peralta of Adler Pollock & Sheehan, via the Appellate Law Blog at JD Supra.

Saturday, September 26, 2020

Mary Trump sues President, family, alleges three decades' fraud in oversight of her father's estate

Author of Too Much and Never Enough (2020), Mary L. Trump on Thursday sued her uncle, the President, and her aunt, retired federal judge Maryanne Trump Barry, for ongoing fraud and breach of fiduciary duty in oversight of the estate of Mary's father, Fred Trump, Jr., since his death in 1981.

The case comes just two months after a failed bid by presidential brother Robert S. Trump to enjoin publication of Mary's book, and one month after Mary's release of audio recordings in which her aunt condemned the President. Considering the First Amendment and the futility of last-minute injunction, the court in the earlier case refused to enforce the confidentiality provisions of a family agreement that settled litigation arising from the deaths of Robert, Maryanne, and the President's parents, Mary's grandparents, Fred and Mary Anne, in 1999 and 2000. Robert S. Trump died on August 15, 2020. Try to keep up.

To navigate the statute of limitations, Mary Trump alleges that she only became aware of the fraud upon the publication of investigative journalism by The New York Times in 2018 (pay wall; about).  Links to the dockets, the complaint in the latest Mary L. Trump case, and the court decision denying injunction in the Robert S. Trump case are now posted at the Trump Litigation Seminar blogsite, a project of The Savory Tort. HT @ TLS students Spencer K. Schneider and Richard Grace

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Libel suit must follow first online post in less than three years, Mass. court rules, applying U.S. norm

The Massachusetts Appeals Court today opined that the "single publication rule" of American libel law causes the statute of limitations period for a defamation claim to start running on the day that a news outlet posts the contested content online.

In American libel law, the single publication rule means that a plaintiff may sue only upon the first publication of allegedly defamatory content.  The content may thereafter be distributed through other publications and other media, amplifying the injury to the plaintiff.  That amplification can count toward damages if the plaintiff prevails.  But there may be only one cause of action for defamation, and the clock for the statute of limitations, the time within which the plaintiff must bring suit, starts running from the time of first publication.  The rule is said to serve interests of both judicial efficiency and fairness to defendants.

A newspaper is printed in 2013 on an 18th-century press
in Colonial Williamsburg. (Maggie McCain CC BY 2.0)

There are exceptions to the single publication rule, namely when content is republished to a substantially different audience or is substantially altered and then republished.  The lines drawn by these exceptions became fuzzier in the internet age, because the internet can be characterized as a sort of ongoing "republisher," such that content is published anew with every user download.  Some plaintiffs were able to chart exception to the single publication rule by asserting alteration in the creation of online archives of dated print material, an issue that reverberates in the debate over the right to erasure, or "right to be forgotten."

The norm that emerged in the digital age in the United States is that the first posting of content online counts as the time of first publication.  In a decision today, the Massachusetts Appeals Court followed that norm.

The plaintiff, Wolsfelt, sued defendant Gloucester Daily Times for its coverage of reported incidents of domestic violence.  In each of two incidents, Wolsfelt was arrested.  After the first incident, in November 2011, the Times published online a story that, according to the Court, "largely tracked the police report."  When in February 2012 the criminal court "entered a 'general continuance' with a 'no abuse' order," the Times updated the story online to report "assault and battery charges ... continued without a finding."

After the second incident in June 2012, the Times again published online a story that "largely tracked the police report."  When in February 2013 the criminal court entered "a continuance without a finding" in that case, the Times updated the story online to report a "charge of assault and battery ... continued without a finding for 18 months."  Charges were dismissed in 2012 and 2014, respectively.

In a defamation complaint in February 2015, the plaintiff "asserted that the articles contained 'untrue, incomplete, misleading[,] and damaging assertions,' resulting in harm that included loss of reputation and potential employment."  But the complaint was not filed until more than three years after the first article, its update, and the second article.  The complaint was filed just under three years, the statute of limitations in Massachusetts, from the publication of the second update.  The plaintiff said he learned about the articles only upon applying for employment in February 2013.

The Court affirmed rejection of the complaint insofar as it was predicated on the first three publications, because the statutory limitations periods on those pieces had run.  Analyzing the second update alone, the Court ruled that it was protected by the fair report privilege, a common law affirmative defense to defamation that protects reporting on public records even if the public records themselves, and therefore reports about them, might contain defamatory falsehoods.  The court's decision is consistent with the single publication rule as applied to the internet by courts in other states.

The single publication rule at one time marked an important difference between common law defamation in the United States and defamation law elsewhere in the world, notably the United Kingdom and other common law jurisdictions.  The lack of a single publication rule in other countries exaggerated the problem of "libel tourism," the phenomenon of plaintiffs shopping for forums friendlier than the United States in which to sue for defamation.

However, adaptation of defamation to the internet, with its unprecedented capacity for republication, created far more headaches in legal systems without the single publication rule than in the United States.  Without the rule to draw the limitations period to a close, causes of action based on web publication seem potentially endless.  Accordingly, the single publication rule has gained traction as a U.S. export.  The rule was adopted in the U.K.'s major statutory overhaul of defamation in 2013.  And the rule has been a point of proposal in Australia's ongoing defamation reform.  The single publication rule became law in New South Wales in July (Lexology).

The case is Wolsfelt v. Gloucester Times, No. 19-P-936 (Mass. App. Ct. Sept. 1, 2020).  Justice Dalila Wendlandt wrote for a panel that also comprised Justices Singh and McDonough.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Mass. tort opinion journeys down coal hole of history

A narrow decision from the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) today is important for keeping alive plaintiff personal injury claims based on road defect injuries, especially amid the trending privatization of public services.  The opinion stops off in Boston history en route to its conclusion.  The case is Meyer v. Veolia Energy North America, No. SJC-12606 (Mass. May 8, 2019).

Reversing summary judgment for defendant Veolia Energy North America, the SJC concluded that the statutory requirement of notice within 30 days to a potential defendant alleged to be responsible for road conditions giving rise to injury applies to the governmental defendants, but not to private-sector defendants.

Sudbury Street, at Court Street, Boston, 1912. City of Boston Archives.
Plaintiff Meyer was injured when on his bicycle, on Sudbury Street in Boston, he "struck a circular utility cover one foot or less in diameter that was misaligned with the road surface."  He gave notice to the City of Boston of a potential tort claim within 30 days.  But the city denied his claim on day 31, referring Meyer to private-sector Veolia as the party responsible for the utility cover.  Upon purportedly late notice to Veolia under the statute, the lower court awarded summary judgment to the energy company.  The SJC reversed, holding the statute inapplicable.

Most of the 32-page decision concerns statutory interpretation and is worth a read if that's your jam.  A couple of points stood out for me, though, as a general observer of law American-style.  The relevant Massachusetts statutes are found in General Laws chapter 84.  The SJC observed that section 1 "reflects its origins in the preindustrial era."  Indeed, the section states, "Highways and town ways, including railroad crossings ... shall be kept in repair at the expense of the town ... so that they may be reasonably safe and convenient for travelers, with their horses, teams, vehicles and carriages at all seasons."

The SJC traced interpretation of the relevant statutes to an 1883 opinion by Justice Holmes.  Yes, that Justice Holmes, the Honorable Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., when he served on the Massachusetts high court.  Explained today's SJC, Justice Holmes for the Court, in in Fisher v. Cushing, 134 Mass. 374 (1883) (electronic page 376 of this free ebook), had

interpreted the road defect and notice statutes, and the meaning of the reference to "persons," in the course of reviewing the statutes' legislative and legal history.  As a noted scholar of legal history and the author of The Common Law (1881), Justice Holmes brought special knowledge and expertise to this interpretation. The defendant in Fisher was sued for negligently maintaining a coal hole on a Boston sidewalk.

Held the Court in Fisher, "The whole scope of that [statutory notice] scheme shows that it is directed to the general public duty [to keep the way in repair], and that it has no reference to the common
law liability for a nuisance."  Explained today's SJC,

The court therefore held that the defendants could be sued in tort for the nuisance they created with their coal hole.
The court also went on to explain the meaning of "persons": "The mention of 'persons' in the statute, alongside of counties and towns obliged to repair, is easily explained. The outline of our scheme was of ancient date and English origin. In England, while parishes were generally bound to repair highways and bridges, a person might be, ratione tenurae, or otherwise .... [W]e cannot say, and probably the Legislature of 1786 could not have said, that there were no cases in the Commonwealth where persons other than counties or towns were bound to keep highways in repair.... Even if there were not, it was a natural precaution to use the words.

Coal hole at Wakefield Town Hall in Great Britain, 2018.
(Stephen Craven CC BY-SA-2.0.)
Footnotes elucidated, "A coal hole was an underground vault covered by a hatch with a cover where coal used for heating purposes was kept for easy access" (citing S.P. Adams, Home Fires: How Americans Kept Warm in the Nineteenth Century 105-106 (2014)).  And "'[r]atione tenurae' is a Latin phrase meaning by reason of tenure," as in being an occupier of land (citing Black's Law Dictionary 1454 (10th ed. 2014)).

I'm assuming that when the Court wrote that the late, great Justice Holmes "brought special knowledge and expertise" to the case, that assertion was strictly a function of the preceding clause, "as a noted scholar of legal history and [common law]," and not, as my mind hastened to wonder, because Justice Holmes had some particular tenura with coal holes.

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.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Statute of repose bars tort-like consumer claim, Mass. high court rules

Yesterday the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) held that a statute of repose bars a claim under the Commonwealth's key consumer protection statute, chapter 93A.  The case examines the oddly "contort" (contracts-torts) role of 93A and occasions a majority-dissent dispute over judicial construction of statute vs. "usurpation of ... legislative prerogative," i.e., corrective justice vs. distributive justice.

Chapter 93A is important in Massachusetts tort law because it is drawn much more broadly than the usual state consumer protection statute.  In a Massachusetts tort case, chapter 93A often provides a parallel avenue for relief and can afford a plaintiff double or treble damages, as well as fee shifting.  That makes it a powerful accountability tool in areas such as product liability, well beyond the usual consumer protection fare in trade practices.

The SJC, per Justice Cypher, published a sound primer on statutes of limitation and repose:

Statutes of repose and statutes of limitations are different kinds of limitations on actions. A statute of limitations specifies the time limit for commencing an action after the cause of action has accrued, but a statute of repose is an absolute limitation which prevents a cause of action from accruing after a certain period which begins to run upon occurrence of a specified event....  A statute of repose eliminates a cause of action at a specified time, regardless of whether an injury has occurred or a cause of action has accrued as of that date....  Statutes of limitations have been described as a "procedural defense" to a legal claim, whereas statutes of repose have been described as providing a "substantive right to be free from liability after a given period of time has elapsed from a defined event." Bain, Determining the Preemptive Effect of Federal Law on State Statutes of Repose, 43 U. Balt. L. Rev. 119, 125 (2014). The statutes are independent of one another and they do not affect each other directly as they are triggered by entirely distinct events.  [Citations omitted.]

Chapter 93A is covered by a four-year statute of limitations.  A six-year statute of repose covers tort actions arising from deficiencies in improvements to real property: "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."

In the instant case, the plaintiff sought relief for damage resulting from a fire 15 years ago.  The plaintiff attributed the fire to multiple deficiencies in electrical work completed by defendant contractors.  Arguing that the electrical work was not done in compliance with the state code, the plaintiff characterized 93A as "neither wholly tortious nor wholly contractual in nature."  The court, however, found the plaintiff's claim "indistinguishable from a claim of negligence," so barred by the statute.

Three justices dissented.   Chief Justice Gants in dissent pointed out that the general statute of repose does not mention chapter 93A, while the general limitations provision does.  And yet another statute, stating terms of both limitation and repose, purports to govern both contract and tort malpractice actions against doctors.  So the legislature knew how to write what it meant.  The general statute of repose, the chief observed, predated chapter 93A, so could not have anticipated it.  Moreover, statutes of limitation and repose have distinct policy objectives:

In short, as is alleged in this case, the property owner may be barred by the statute of repose from bringing a claim before he or she knows, or reasonably should know, that he or she even has a claim -- even where the defendant has fraudulently concealed the claim from the plaintiff. Consequently, a statute of repose reflects a legislative decision that it is more important to protect certain defendants from old claims than it is to protect the right of plaintiffs to enforce otherwise valid and timely claims.

Thus a statute of repose should not be construed to cover 93A absent plain legislative direction.  The chief concluded: "[T]his is a usurpation of a distinctly legislative prerogative."

The case is Bridgwood v. A.J. Wood Construction, Inc., No. SJC-12352 (Mass. Aug. 29, 2018) (PDF opinion; oral argument via Suffolk Law School).

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

SOL in Mass.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court adopted the continuing treatment exception to the state medmal limitations period (three years) and reasonable discovery rule in Parr v. Rosenthal, published this week, http://www.mass.gov/courts/docs/sjc/reporter-of-decisions/new-opinions/12014.pdf.  The opinion offers a worthwhile review of the language and standards of Masschusetts common law interpretation of the statutory limitations periods.

Bonus tracks include (1) the problem of a minor plaintiff; (2) interaction with statutes of repose; (3) role of the jury in fact-finding; and (4) a dissent (from p. 37) that doesn't necessarily disagree with the rationale but thinks the upset to settled common law invaded the policy-making prerogative of the legislature.

Saliently for the litigants, the Court ruled that the limitations period ran despite operation of the continuing treatment doctrine, because the doctrine ceased to operate when the defending physician left the treatment team.

(Cross-posted to Obligations Discussion Group.)