News & Insights

Appeals Court Of Massachusetts Applies Statute Of Repose To Dismiss Counts For Negligence, Breach Of Contract, And Indemnification Because Negligence Was At Issue In Each Count

In Univ. of Massachusetts Bldg. Auth. v. Adams Plumbing & Heating, Inc., 102 Mass. App. Ct. 1107 (2023), the Appeals Court of Massachusetts upheld the dismissal of the Plaintiffs’ claims because negligence was at issue in each count and thus barred by the Massachusetts’ statute of repose.

In 2013, the University of Massachusetts Building Authority and University of Massachusetts Amherst (collectively “UMass”) contracted with various contractors, architects, and engineers to renovate the Blue Wall, one of its student dining halls. On September 2, 2014, the dining hall opened for use. In the spring of 2018, UMass found that the ductwork in the kitchen’s exhaust system had partially collapsed and exhibited other deficiencies, including seam leaks, joint separations, duct panel damage, and irregularities with its control system. On December 1, 2020, UMass filed a Complaint alleging causes of action for negligence, breach of contract, and indemnification. In response, several defendants filed motions for summary judgment alleging each of those claims were time barred under the statute of repose.

Under Massachusetts law, the statute of repose places an absolute six-year time limitation on “[a]ctions 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.” Univ. of Massachusetts Bldg. Auth., 102 Mass. App. Ct. 1107 *1 (2023) (quoting Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 260, § 2B). It was not until December 1, 2020, six (6) years and three (3) months after work was complete, that UMass filed suit.

While UMass acknowledged that the statute of repose barred its claims for negligence, it argued that its claims for breach of contract and indemnification were erroneously dismissed. The Appeals Court of Massachusetts disagreed and affirmed the lower court’s dismissal as to all claims, reasoning that both the breach of contract and indemnification counts ultimately sounded in negligence. In reaching its decision, the Court held UMass “may not escape the consequences of the statute by recasting a negligence claim in the form of another claim.” Id.

In determining whether the statute of repose applies in a case, the Court stated it looks “to the nature or ‘gist’ of the claim”, rather than the counts pled in the complaint. Id. Stated another way, UMass was required to allege a cause of action that was “separate and distinct from the shoddy work” alleged in the Complaint. Id. In the Court’s opinion, all counts raised by UMass revolved around the “shoddy work”, which was “precisely the sort of claim that the statute of repose bars, whether asserted as a claim for negligence, indemnification, or something else.” Id.

Statute of repose laws continue to be great gatekeeping tools to combat stale claims. Contractors, architects, and engineers should be aware of which states have such statutes and assert the defense at the on-set of litigation if available.