A statute of limitations is a law that limits the amount of time parties have before they can file a lawsuit. For instance, in Washington, a person injured in a car accident generally has only three years from the date of their injury to file a lawsuit against the negligent driver who caused the accident. If the injured party waits longer than three years, the statute of limitations prevents them from filing a claim.
The three-year limit isn’t just for car accidents. The three-year statute of limitations holds for all personal injury claims in Washington, including claims related to asbestos exposure. This can present a problem, because the worst injuries of asbestos exposure typically do not manifest themselves until years — sometimes decades — after the exposure.
How long does a person have to file an asbestos-related lawsuit? If they don’t learn about their health problems until after the statute of limitations has expired, are they prohibited from filing a lawsuit?
Asbestos is a naturally occurring, fibrous material that is fire-resistant. It was once widely used in construction and was used extensively in shipping, including the shipyards of Washington and Oregon.
By the early 1980s, scientists had learned that asbestos can cause serious health problems, including types of cancer. Washington state and the federal government outlawed the use of the substance in most industries. Asbestos is now found almost exclusively in older buildings and some specialized industries, and its use and removal are highly regulated.
Although the use of asbestos has been rare for decades, people are still being diagnosed with asbestos-related illnesses today. Some of these people have been exposed to the substance more recently, but many were exposed decades ago. They may have inhaled asbestos fibers, which then caused health conditions that developed over many years.
One such condition is mesothelioma, a cancer that grows in the outer linings of the lungs and heart. Mesothelioma is caused only by exposure to asbestos, and has no known cure. It develops slowly, so people may not develop any symptoms for many years. They may seek medical treatment and receive a diagnosis decades after they were exposed to to the dangerous substance.
Tolling the statute of limitations
A person who has been diagnosed with mesothelioma will almost certainly face enormous medical bills, pain and suffering and other damages. If they end up dying from the disease, their family will be left without their income and emotional support. They should be able to hold their employer or another party liable for the damages they suffered as a result of their exposure to a dangerous substance. How can they file suit if the statute of limitations has expired?
The answer to this question lies in a concept known as tolling. While the statute of limitations expires after three years, for some types of actions courts will hold that the statute has “tolled” until the discovery of the injury.
Thus, the three-year period for a personal injury lawsuit begins when the patient receives their mesothelioma diagnosis. In the case of a wrongful death lawsuit, the family’s three-year period starts upon the death of their loved one.
A patient has a lot on their mind when they are going through the difficulties of a mesothelioma diagnosis and treatment. Likewise, family members have their hands full when they are dealing with the loss of a loved one. However, the damages these people face as the result of asbestos exposure are very real, and will affect the family for the rest of their lives. Affected people should seek out advice from an experienced lawyer as soon as they can.