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First United Methodist Church of Hyattsville v. United States Gypsum Co.

decided as corrected october 6 1989.: August 10, 1989.

FIRST UNITED METHODIST CHURCH OF HYATTSVILLE, PLAINTIFF - APPELLANT
v.
UNITED STATES GYPSUM COMPANY, DEFENDANT - APPELLEE



Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Maryland, at Baltimore. Joseph C. Howard, District Judge. C/A 88-2030-JH.

Russell and Hall, Circuit Judges, and Butzner, Senior Circuit Judge.

Author: Hall

HALL, Circuit Judge:

The First United Methodist Church of Hyattsville, Maryland ("First United") appeals the district court's grant of partial summary judgment in favor of United States Gypsum Company ("USG") based on a Maryland statute of repose, § 5-108 Md. Cts. & Jud. Proc. Code Ann. Specifically, the district court held that the repose period of § 5-108(a) was not preempted by the Comprehensive Environmental Response and Compensation Act of 1980 ("CERCLA"), 42 U.S.C. § 9658. Finding no error, we affirm.

I.

In 1961, First United undertook construction of a new church building. At the direction of the building's architect, an asbestos-containing acoustical plaster, manufactured by USG, was applied to the building's ceilings. The church was consecrated on May 20, 1962, and has been in continuous use ever since. In 1969, a portion of the ceiling was replaced and asbestos-laden plaster was again used.

In July, 1985, First United became concerned over the possibility that asbestos materials may have been used in the construction of the church. In August, the presence of danger from the acoustical plaster was discovered and First United's Board of Trustees directed its removal from the building.

On June 15, 1988, First United brought suit against USG in Maryland state court alleging that the plaster posed a health hazard to those who frequently occupied the building. The Church sought to recover the cost of the removal of the plaster, an amount in excess of $225,000.00. USG removed the case to federal court without opposition.

First United's complaint advanced the state law theories of strict liability, negligence, breach of express and implied warranties, and fraud. On July 26, USG filed a motion for partial summary judgment on all claims arising from installation of the plaster which occurred before June 17, 1966, interposing Maryland's 20-year statute of repose as a complete defense. § 5-108(a) Md.Cts. & Jud.Proc.Code Ann. On October 13, the district court granted the motion and, finding no reason for just delays, entered a final judgment pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 54(b) as to all pre-1966 claims. This appeal followed.

II.

First United makes several arguments against the application of the statute of repose to its claims. The church's primary contention is that manufacturers are not in the class of persons protected by the statute. Alternatively, First United argues that even if the statute applies, USG's fraudulent concealment of the hazards of its plaster serve to toll the statute's running. Finally, the church argues that the time limits of § 5-108, as applied to its claims, have been preempted by CERCLA's § 9658, which establishes a uniform statute of limitations for all state law property damage actions based on the release of any hazardous substance into the environment. We address these arguments in turn.

The statute of repose reads in pertinent part:

§ 5-108. Injury to person or property occurring after completion of improvement to realty.

(a) Injury occurring more than 20 years later. -- Except as provided by this section, no cause of action for damages accrues and a person may not seek contribution or indemnity for damages incurred when wrongful death, personal injury, or injury to real or personal property resulting from the defective and unsafe condition of an improvement to real property occurs more than 20 years after the date the entire improvement first becomes available for its intended use.

First United bases its narrow reading of this broad grant of immunity on a passage from the statute's legislative history that characterizes the statute as protecting "builders, contractors, landlords, and realtors." See Allentown Plaza Associates v. Suburban Propane Gas Corp., 43 Md. App. 337, 342-44, 405 A.2d 326 (1979) (discussing the Revisor's Note to § 5-108). According to First United's argument, because USG as manufacturer of the plaster does not fit into one of these categories, it cannot have benefit of the statute. We do not agree.

While a statute's legislative history is often helpful in resolving ambiguity, one of the time-honored maxims of statutory construction is that when the language of a statute is clear, there is no need to rely on its legislative history. Ex Parte Collett, 337 U.S. 55, 61, 93 L. Ed. 1207, 69 S. Ct. 944 (1949). Such is the case here. This statute unequivocally states that "no cause of action for damages accrues" after the 20-year time limit. And, it is completely silent as to any limitation on the class of persons it protects. To remove manufacturers from the ambit ...


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