Statutes of limitation are a well-known aspect of any litigation. A statute of limitation limits the time you have to file a lawsuit. In many circumstances, your time to file begins with the occurrence that causes the need for the lawsuit. For instance, if you have a contract and the other party breaches the contract, your time to sue is typically measured from when the breach occurred.
In the personal injury context, the statute of limitations is measured from when your injury occurred. If you are injured in a car accident, the date of the accident is the measuring point for the statute of limitations.
But what if you do not know you were injured?
This is a problem that occurred for many victims of asbestos. They may have been exposed to the material when they were in their 20s, working in a shipyard, construction site or handling brake shoes from automobiles. They may have moved on to other jobs and forgotten that they had even handled a material that contained asbestos.
More likely, they never knew it was contaminated with asbestos, and it was only 20 or 30 years later that they discovered they had a cough that would not go away. It may only have been when the doctor presents them with the chilling diagnosis of mesothelioma that they realized they had been exposed to asbestos decades earlier.
A statute of limitation prohibits the filing of a lawsuit after a period of time has passed. You may be wondering why statutes of limitation exist at all. Why not allow lawsuits to be filed at any time? Well, part of the function of statutes of limitation is to prevent what are known as “stale claims.” Stale claims are those lawsuits that have become old and difficult to try.
Staleness happens when the facts of the case are no longer clear because of the passage of time. In a contract’s case, perhaps important documents have been lost or destroyed over the years. Witnesses have grown old and have forgotten details from the drafting or negotiations surrounding the contract.
In a car accident case, the vehicles may have been scrapped, the accident scene returned to its undamaged condition, other evidence has been lost, and the witnesses may have moved away or may not be available due to death or other infirmity.
With asbestos cases, this presents a significant problem, because in almost all cases, the exposure to asbestos likely occurred years, if not decades earlier, and the victims themselves may not remember the details of their activities 40 years earlier and where they may have been exposed to the deadly fibers.
Because the typical two- or three-year statute of limitation for personal injury cases would have been grossly unfair to almost all victims, as it would allow the long latency period of the disease to protect the responsible parties from the harm they caused, a different rule was developed.
This rule, known as the discovery rule, changed the timing of when the statute of limitations is triggered, from when the injury or harm occurred to when the victim first learned that they had been exposed. This allows victims of asbestos who develop an illness like mesothelioma 30 years after exposure to obtain some compensation for their harm.
Nonetheless, you still need to act as soon as you discover your illness, as the clock starts ticking, and you would not want to lose compensation you and your family will need to deal with the complication of these illnesses.