Claims Based on General Contract Obligations “Sounded in Negligence” and Were Thus Barred by the Statute of Repose

A project owner has learned that claims based on shoddy work, as opposed to violation of a specific technical requirement, will be deemed to “sound in negligence” and be subject to the statute of repose.

In Massachusetts, the statute of limitations for breach of contract is six years. This six-year period can be extended by the “discovery rule” if the defect or issue was not reasonably discoverable for some period of time. Claims for negligence are subject to a three-year limitations period, and also subject to the discovery rule. But – as in a number of states – Massachusetts has a statute of repose, which cuts off claims for negligence, concerning design or construction projects, six years after substantial completion of the project.

The University of Massachusetts opened a dining hall in early September 2014. Problems with the kitchen exhaust ductwork were discovered in early 2018. A lawsuit was filed in December 2020 against the original contractor, architect, and certain subs. Motions to dismiss were filed based on both statute of limitations and statute of repose. UMass argued that its claims for breach of contract and breach of warranty – based on contract terms – were extended by the discovery rule, and thus timely.

But the Massachusetts Appeals Court did not agree that UMass had valid claims for breach of contract:

While we agree that claims for breach of express warranty are not barred by the statute of repose, UMass's argument falters where UMass has not identified any express warranties that were breached.

It has long been held that claims for breach of express warranty are not barred by the statute of repose because they require proof that the defendant guaranteed a heightened level of workmanship, and in that way differ from claims for negligence. . . A defendant may guarantee a heightened level of workmanship by promising a specific result, . . ., or by agreeing to comply with technical specifications in a written contract . . . In either scenario, the plaintiff may not rely on general contract provisions that impose the implied duty of reasonable care, as such provisions do not guarantee a heightened level of workmanship. [citations omitted]

UMass claims both that the defendants promised specific results and that the defendants agreed to comply with technical specifications in their written contracts. With respect to the technical specifications, UMass's argument is unavailing because UMass has not identified with specificity any problems that involved violations of technical specifications versus problems that amounted to shoddy work in violation of the implied duty of reasonable care. (emphasis added)

Since the claims by UMass relied “on general contract provisions” and not specific technical requirements or obligations, the court held that such claims sounded in tort, and were thus barred by the statute of repose.

The claim for breach of indemnity fared no better, since that claim, as well, was based on general allegations of shoddy work.

The case is University of Massachusetts Building Authority v. Adams Plumbing & Heating, Inc., 2023 Mass. App. Unpub. LEXIS 28 (Jan. 19, 2023). It is an “unpublished” decision, considered not to have any precedential value, and can be reached via this site. But it makes an important statement in what claims might be considered breach of an explicit undertaking, rather than an implied duty of reasonable care.