For Whom the Limitations Period Tolls: The SJC Imposes 106 More Days of Potential Liability on Defendants

Sullivan & Worcester

In a decision dated September 3, 2021, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) solidified the broad reach of its emergency tolling orders. Through a series of emergency orders in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, the SJC extended all deadlines, including all otherwise applicable statute of limitations (SOLs), by an aggregate of 106 days. Now, in its recent decision in Shaw’s Supermarkets, Inc. v. Melendez, the SJC has amplified the impact of these orders by declaring that the orders apply to any SOL that ran through the tolling period, not just ones that expired during that period.

In response to COVID-19, the SJC had issued multiple orders regarding court operations during the pandemic. These orders sought to balance health and safety concerns with the need to keep the judiciary operating efficiently. The SJC’s Third Updated Order called for the tolling of "[a]ll civil statutes of limitations … from March 17, 2020 through June 30, 2020." The order provided guidance on how to calculate the new date on which the SOL would expire, instructing litigants to "determine how many days remained as of March 17, 2020, until the statute of limitation would have expired, and that same number of days will remain as of July 1, 2020."

The case that led to this decision started out as a rather ordinary personal injury case – a woman was injured while shopping at a supermarket when a cart pushed by an employee collided into her. The injury occurred on September 3, 2017. The plaintiff filed a negligence complaint on September 24, 2020.

Under normal circumstances, the complaint would have been time barred under Massachusetts’ three-year SOL for tort actions. Relying on the three-year limitations period, the defendant moved to dismiss the complaint and argued that the tolling order was only applicable to SOLs that would have expired during the period between March 17, 2020 and June 30, 2020. Since the plaintiff’s claim would normally have expired on September 3, 2020, the defendant argued, the tolling order should not apply to her.

The SJC found that the plain language of the order clearly and unambiguously stated that “all” SOLs that overlapped with that period were tolled, not just the ones that expired during that period. "'All’ means all," the court stated. The SJC also recognized that litigants and their attorneys have been facing significant hurdles, as the COVID-19 restrictions have impaired their ability to perform important tasks in preparing for litigation, such as conducting interviews or collecting medical records. In light of these considerations, the SJC was unwilling to narrow the plain meaning of the tolling order.

The impact of this decision is far-reaching, as it effectively provides a 106-day extension for any claim that arose prior to March 17, 2020, thus giving potential claimants more time to prepare for filing a complaint. Moreover, this decision means that possible defendants face an extra 106 days of exposure.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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