In a rare 4-3 decision, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court recently affirmed the dismissal of a consumer protection lawsuit brought against a home improvement contractor. The case, Bridgwood v. A.J. Wood Construction, Inc., pitted the consumer protection rights of homeowners against the right of contractors to be free from liability for old claims.
The plaintiff, Terry Bridgwood, filed the lawsuit in 2016, slightly less than four years after a fire caused substantial damage to her home. Ms. Bridgwood alleged that the fire was caused by the defendants’ improper electrical work performed during a home renovation fifteen years earlier. Because the work was not properly inspected and permitted, Ms. Bridgwood brought suit under the Massachusetts Consumer Protection Statute, G.L. c. 93A (Chapter 93A), which provides remedies against contractors who violate certain building codes and statutes. Ms. Bridgwood argued that because she brought suit less than four years after the fire, her claims were not barred by the four-year statute of limitations applicable to Chapter 93A claims.
The defendant contractors argued that they were entitled to the protection of G.L. c. 260, § 2B, a statute of repose. Unlike a statute of limitations, which typically governs the time within which a lawsuit must be commenced, and which generally begin to run after a plaintiff suffers an injury, or discovers an injury, the statute of repose limits the time within which an action may be brought and is not related to the discovery of the injury. The statute of repose clock begins to run upon completion of the home improvement work, in this case, 15 years before the fire that damaged the home and led to the plaintiff’s discovery of the deficient electrical work. The statute of repose is a complete bar to recovery after six years even if the plaintiff is not injured during that time period or if a construction defect that caused the injury was concealed during that time period.
The narrow majority of the SJC determined that Ms. Bridgwood’s claims “sounded in tort,” rejecting the dissenting Justices’ arguments that Chapter 93A claims are distinct from tort claims and should not be subject to the statute of repose. The Court also acknowledged that the purpose of the statute of repose is to protect contractors and other design professionals from claims that are asserted many years after their work is completed. As a result, the Court found the claims to be time-barred and affirmed the dismissal of Ms. Bridgwood’s claim.
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