Can Massachusetts’ six-year statute of repose (G.L. c. 260, § 2B) preclude an otherwise timely claim under Massachusetts’ Consumer Protection law, G.L. c. 93A? In Bridgwood v. A.J. Wood Construction, Inc., — Mass. –(2018), a divided Supreme Judicial Court determined that it can, even where the compliance failure that gave rise to the claim was concealed for years.
Chapter 93A, is “a statute of broad impact which creates new substantive rights and provides new procedural devices for the enforcement of those rights.” Slaney v. Westwood Auto, Inc., 366 Mass. 688, 693 (1975). Due to its broad remedial purpose, c. 93A can change the dynamic of a case because it places the prospect of multiple damages and an award of reasonable attorneys’ fees on the table. This creates a natural tendency for plaintiffs to push the boundaries of c. 93A to envelop more claims, with defendants pushing back to contain c. 93A’s expansion. The Supreme Judicial Court encountered this dynamic in Bridgwood v. A.J. Wood Construction, Inc., — Mass. –(2018), where it addressed the question of whether a c. 93A claim that is based upon a violation of the Massachusetts Home Improvement Contractor law (G.L. c. 142A) is subject to Massachusetts’ six-year statute of repose.
The timeline of events that lead to this lawsuit was simple. The defendants completed rehabilitation work on the plaintiff’s home in January 2001. A fire occurred at the plaintiff’s home on January 31, 2012, which the plaintiff claimed was caused by poor electrical work. As it turns out the defendants failed to do number of this: none of the defendants obtained a permit to replace or repair some certain ceiling light fixtures; they did not provide notice to or arrange for an inspection by the town inspector; and “the electrical rehabilitation work with respect to the ceiling light fixtures was not performed in compliance with any applicable Federal, State, or local codes ….”
This series of events set up what appeared to be a straightforward claim under G.L. 142A, § 17(10), which provides that a “violation of the building laws of the commonwealth or of any political subdivision thereof” is also an unfair and deceptive act under c. 93A. The plaintiff filed her complaint in January 2016, which was within the four-year statute of limitations for a c. 93A claim (G.L. c. 260, §5A). This otherwise simple scenario was complicated, however, by the fact that the defendants claimed that the six-year statute of repose applied, and the plaintiff filed her lawsuit fifteen years later, which required dismissal of her claim. The Supreme Judicial Court agreed with the defendants and rejected the plaintiff’s claim that “the statue of repose does not apply to consumer protection claims under G.L. c. 93A.”
A statute of repose and statute of limitations are not the same. Generally speaking, “[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.” They are independent of each other.
As noted above, the Supreme Judicial Court was divided on this issue. The analyses of the majority and dissent highlight the difficulty that litigants face in cases where a c. 93A claim is encroaching on another statute or claim that is more limited than c. 93A. Both decisions analyzed the text of the statutes at issue, their purposes, and prior case law; however, they reached diametrically opposed conclusions.
For example, the majority referenced Klairmont v. Gainsboro Restaurant, Inc., 465 Mass., 165 178-179 (2013), which held that a c. 93A claim survived the plaintiff’s death, in support of its analysis. In contrast, the dissent flat-out rejected the notion that Klairmont supported “depriv[ing] the plaintiff of her ability to bring a c. 93A claim that is timely under the statute of limitations.” Neither opinion referenced the fact that Klairmont also accepted the proposition that there had to be limits on what unlawful acts (even code violations) are actionable under c. 93A. See id. at 173. In addition to disagreeing over Klairmont, the majority and dissent drew different conclusions from a series of Appeals Court decisions.
Even though c. 93A is forty-plus years old many issues surrounding its application remain unsettled. Bridgwood represents one skirmish in a long-running debate over the scope of c. 93A. Bridgwood involved a narrow question about the applicability of the statute of repose, but Court’s analysis is important for all c. 93A cases because it is illustrative of the general forces involved in many c. 93A cases.