Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Explains Tolling Period for Statutes of Limitations due to COVID-19

On September 3, 2021, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) issued a decision that clarified the provisions of its COVID-19 Orders concerning the tolling of statutes of limitations. The SJC held that the COVID-19 Tolling Order applied to all civil actions, not just those where the applicable statute of limitations expired during the tolling period. Consequently, claimants will now have additional time to file civil cases that may not have been directly affected by COVID-19’s impact on Court operations.

On June 24, 2020, the SJC issued its Third Updated COVID-19 Order which provided that “[a]ll civil statutes of limitations were tolled by Prior SJC Orders from March 17, 2020, through June 30, 2020.” The Order also stated that, to calculate the new statute of limitations, one must “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.”

In Shaw’s Supermarket, Inc. v. Melendez, the SJC addressed a dispute surrounding the Tolling Order’s statute of limitations language. Specifically, the SJC held that its COVID-19 Tolling Order applies to all cases, not just those cases where the statute of limitations would have expired during the tolling period. In Melendez, the plaintiff alleged that she was injured at a Shaw’s store due to the negligence of a store employee on September 3, 2017. Under Massachusetts law, the statute of limitations for such a claim is three years. The plaintiff filed her complaint on September 24, 2020, after the three-year statute of limitations ordinarily would have expired. Shaw’s moved to dismiss the case, arguing that the Tolling Order applied only to those civil statutes of limitations that expired between March 17, 2020 and June 30, 2020 and, therefore, did not apply to those statutes of limitations that expired after June 30, 2020. The plaintiff argued that the phrase “all civil statutes of limitations” meant all cases and not a subset of cases limited to the tolling period.

The SJC disagreed with Shaw’s. The Court reasoned that the term “all civil statutes of limitations” in the Tolling Order did not refer only to a subset of cases where the statute of limitations was set to expire during the tolled period, but to all causes of action for which the relevant limitations period expired for some period between, or through, March 17, 2020 and June 30, 2020. The Court also found support for its decision in the purpose of its Tolling Order. The SJC noted that attorneys must do substantial legwork before filing a case, such as interviewing clients and witnesses, gathering medical records, and inspecting incident sites, all of which were hampered by COVID-19 restrictions that limited business activity and in-person meetings.

In practice, for claims that accrued before June 30, 2020, the statute of limitations will now be extended by up to 106 days. Setting aside claims that accrue under Massachusetts “discovery rule,” which may require a separate analysis, Melendez directly affects the filing of claims that accrued before June 30, 2020 (i.e., an incident occurred before June 30, 2020), but where the statute of limitations had not expired before March 17, 2020. For example:

  • If the statute of limitations would have expired between March 17, 2020 and June 30, 2020, the filing period was briefly extended, but has now since lapsed for all practical purposes.
  • If the statute of limitations would have expired after June 30, 2020, but the claim accrued before March 17, 2020, the statute of limitations is expanded by 106 days. For example, if a negligence claim accrued on June 18, 2018, the statute of limitations would originally have expired on June 18, 2021. However, under the SJC’s COVID-19 Tolling Order, the statute of limitations now expires on October 2, 2021 (106 days later).
  • If a claim accrued between March 17, 2020 and June 30, 2020, the statute of limitations is extended by the number of days between the date of incident and June 30, 2020.
    • Example 1: A negligence claim that accrued on June 29, 2020 will have a statute of limitations of June 30, 2023 (1 additional day).
    • Example 2: A negligence claim that accrued on May 15, 2020, will have a statute of limitations of June 30, 2023 (an additional 46 days).

While the SJC did not address claims that accrue after June 30, 2020, the Court’s reliance on the practical difficulties of advancing a case during the COVID-19 restrictions suggests that the statute of limitations for such claims will not be affected because those practical considerations are arguably no longer an issue.

We anticipate that this ruling will significantly impact defenses to be asserted in response to complaints filed with the courts. We recommend taking the time now to identify any existing pre-suit claims that may have accrued between March 17, 2017 and June 30, 2020 to calculate when the statute of limitations is likely to expire, as the limitations period is likely to have been extended by as much as 106 days. We also recommend discussing the impact of this decision with your employees, insurers, insureds, and other affiliated individuals who may be anticipating a lawsuit arising from affected claims so that they are aware of the possible extension of time for a complaint to be filed.

For more information

For more information or if you have questions about how this ruling directly impacts you, please contact Greg Vanden-Eykel or Eric Davey at 617.654.8200.