Massachusetts Superior Court Finds Injured Pedestrian’s Claims Against Contractor Not Time-Barred, Despite Arising 6+ Years After Project Completion

By Jena M. Richer

The Massachusetts Superior Court recently refused to dismiss a pedestrian’s personal injury claim against a contractor, rejecting the contractor’s argument that such claims should be time-barred under the Massachusetts statute of repose in Lefta v. Signet Electronics, Inc., 2022 WL 16855617, at *1 (Mass. Sup. Ct.).

Lefta involved a pedestrian injured by a faulty door lock at a nursing home. Years before that incident, in October of 2010, the building owner for the nursing home entered into a $26.7M contract to construct an addition to an existing building (“the Project”) with Pro Con Inc., as general contractor. In November of 2011, Pro Con subcontracted with Bristol Builders and Contractors, Inc. (“Bristol”). Pursuant to this subcontract, Bristol would be paid $750,000 to perform certain work including that associated with “doors and hardware.” Specifically, this door-related work included installation of a particular model of electromagnetic door locks. Accordingly, sometime during 2012, Bristol installed approximately 25 Schlage electromagnetic locks for this Project. Bristol played no role in the electrical wiring of these locks, and the addition was substantially complete by August 2012.

In October 2014, Alfons Lefta was struck on the head by a falling metal component of an electromagnetic door lock while delivering medical supplies to the nursing home. Three years later, in August of 2017, Mr. Lefta and his wife and child (“the plaintiffs”) filed a complaint for personal injuries and loss of spousal and parent consortium, respectively. The original complaint did not name Bristol as a defendant. Indeed, it was not until after Pro Con filed a third-party complaint in October of 2018 (naming Bristol as a third-party defendant in the action) that the plaintiffs named Bristol as a defendant through a second amended complaint in April of 2019. The issue brought before the Superior Court upon Bristol’s motion for summary judgment was whether the causes of action brought in the second amended complaint are time-barred by the statute of repose (G.L. c. 260 § 2B). The Court found the claims are not barred and denied Bristol’s motion for summary judgment.

As applied to this case, the statute of repose precludes an “[a]ction 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,” unless it is commenced within six years of substantial completion of the improvement. G.L. c. 260 § 2B.

Thus, the issue before the Superior Court was two-fold: first, whether the Schlage electromagnetic locks fall within the purview of § 2B as “an improvement to real property,” and second, whether Bristol’s work likewise involved “the design, planning, construction or general administration” contemplated by the statute.

The Court first determined that the installation of the Schlage electromagnetic locks was indeed an “improvement.” Though the text of § 2B did not define the term and the legislative history did not further elucidate its meaning, the Court looked at the Supreme Judicial Court’s previous use of the word’s dictionary definition: “a permanent addition to or betterment of real property that enhances its capital value and that involves the expenditure of labor or money and is designed to make the property more useful or valuable as distinguished from ordinary repairs.” The Court had “little difficulty” in applying this definition to encompass the lock installation at issue.

It was then decided that no evidence had been put forth to substantiate that Bristol’s services involved the requisite “design, planning, construction or general administration” to trigger 2B’s protections. Specifically, the Court reasoned that section 2B protects “parties who render particularized services for the design and construction of particular improvements to particular pieces of real property.” Two cases were particularly instructive in applying this distinction: Colomba v. Fulchini Plumbing, 58 Mass. App. Ct. 901 (2003), and the more recent Szulc v. Siciliano Plumbing & Heating, Inc., 99 Mass. App. Ct. 729 (2021).

Bristol, the Court reasoned, failed to provide any evidence that it did anything more than “merely install” the locks. Quite literally, the Court could only find one statement in Bristol’s memorandum in support of its summary judgment motion that was relevant to this point. Unfortunately, that statement—“it is undisputed that the installation of the mag lock required some level of expertise to assemble and install”—lacked any citation, and the Court “could find no such evidence” upon its own review of the record. In light (at least one most favorable to the plaintiffs) of the fact that Bristol played no part in the electrical wiring of the locks after installation, the Court decided that a question of fact remained as to whether Bristol’s services fell within those contemplated by section 2B and, accordingly, denied Bristol’s motion for summary judgment.

Though the Court declined to apply the statute of repose to bar the claim, it is important to keep in mind the argument such was due to the lack of evidence to support the argument Bristol’s work was in “design” or “construction.” Thus, this case clearly outlines an analytical framework that contractors may use to oppose time-barred claims by injured persons in similar cases.