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Stearns v. Metropolitan Life Insurance Co.

Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Suffolk

March 1, 2019

JUNE STEARNS, coexecutrix, [1]& another[2]
v.
METROPOLITAN LIFE INSURANCE COMPANY & others.[3]

          Heard: December 4, 2018.

         Certification of a question of law to the Supreme Judicial Court by the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts.

          John A. Heller, of Illinois (Catherine A. Mohan & Benjamin M. Greene also present) for General Electric Company.

          Michael J. McCann (Michael C. Shepard, Lisa M. Conserve, & Erika A. O'Donnell also present) for the plaintiffs.

          John R. Felice & Brad W. Graham for Massachusetts Defense Lawyers Association, amicus curiae, were present but did not argue.

         The following submitted briefs for amici curiae:

          Lawrence G. Cetrulo, Stephen T. Armato, Whitney K. Barrows, Elizabeth S. Dillon, Lauren K. Camire, & Brian D. Fishman for Massachusetts Asbestos Litigation Defendants' Liaison Counsel.

          Thomas R. Murphy, Kevin J. Powers, & John G. Mateus for Massachusetts Academy of Trial Attorneys.

          Gants, C.J., Gaziano, Lowy, Budd, Cypher, & Kafker, JJ.

          CYPHER, J.

         In this case we are called on to answer a certified question from the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts concerning whether the six-year statute of repose set forth in G. L. c. 260, § 2B (§ 2B), operates to bar tort claims arising from diseases with extended latency periods, such as those associated with asbestos exposure, where the defendants had knowing control of the injurious instrumentality at the time of exposure.[4] We answer the question in the affirmative. Consistent with our precedent, we conclude that § 2B completely eliminates all tort claims arising out of any deficiency or neglect in the design, planning, construction, or general administration of an improvement to real property after the established time period has run, even if the cause of action arises from a disease with an extended latency period and even if a defendant had knowing control of the instrumentality of injury at the time of exposure. In so doing, we recognize that, considering the latency period for asbestos-related illnesses, this will have the regrettable effect of barring all or nearly all tort claims arising from negligence in the use or handling of asbestos in construction-related suits. Nonetheless, the appropriate recourse is in the Legislature, not this court.

         Background. Because our task is limited to responding to the certified question, we do not delve deeply into the factual complexities of this case.[5]The underlying action concerns the death of Wayne Oliver, who died in 2016 of mesothelioma after exposure to asbestos during the construction of two nuclear power plants in the 1970s. Relevant to the issue at hand, defendant General Electric Company (GE) designed, manufactured, and sold steam turbine generators for installation at each of the plants and supervised the installations. GE's installation specifications called for the use of asbestos-containing insulation materials. Oliver, who worked as a pipe inspector for a nonparty, was present while the insulation was cut, mixed, and applied to certain piping systems and equipment in the turbine halls of both plants, exposing him to the toxic asbestos particles within.

         Oliver came into contact with the tainted insulation between 1971 and 1978, [6] received his malignant mesothelioma diagnosis in April 2015, and commenced the underlying action in the Superior Court in August 2015. He alleged, among other things, that GE had negligently exposed him to asbestos during the construction of the two power plants and caused him to contract mesothelioma. Thereafter, the case was removed to the Federal District Court and, when Oliver passed away in July 2016, that court allowed the plaintiffs, as coexecutors of Oliver's estate, to submit an amended complaint and continue the litigation.

         GE moved for summary judgment on the ground that the plaintiffs' claims against it were barred by § 2B, which sets a firm six-year time limit for tort actions arising out of any deficiency or neglect in the design, planning, construction, or general administration of an improvement to real property. The plaintiffs disputed that § 2B was intended to apply to cases involving diseases with extended latency ...


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