Tolling the Statute of Limitations for Personal Injury Cases Involving Disease – Stahle v. CTS Corp.

calendar-1192688-1279x981Many states have statute of limitations requirements.  These laws require individuals to bring their legal claims within a certain amount of time after the injury giving rise to the claim occurs, or otherwise lose the claims forever.  Thus, for instance, if an individual is hit by a car while crossing the street, he or she usually cannot wait 10 years to bring a lawsuit about the accident, long after witnesses and evidence are no longer available. Instead, there may be a three year statute of limitations requiring the claim to be brought within three years, or else lost.

One notable exception to the statute of limitations requirements is the discovery rule. Under the discovery rule, statutes of limitation may be “tolled,” or put on hold, until an individual discovers that he or she has suffered an injury as a result of another’s actions.  For example, if a mother is killed in her sleep and the death is initially determined to be natural causes, but a later autopsy reveals that the death was due to homicide, the statute of limitations would not begin to run on the homicide claim until the possibility of homicide was discovered.

A recent case in the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit considers whether state statutes related to the statute of limitations and discovery rules apply in “disease cases” or if they are limited to other personal injury actions.

In Stahle v. CTS Corp., Mr. Stahle was a North Carolina resident diagnosed with leukemia while an adult.  Mr. Stahle sued CTS Corp. for dumping toxic contaminants into a river near his childhood home, alleging that these contaminants were the cause of his leukemia.  CTS had operated around Mr. Stahle’s home from 1959 until 1968, but ceased operations shortly thereafter. Accordingly, it moved to dismiss Mr. Stahle’s suit, arguing that his claims were time barred by the statute of limitations because North Carolina has a statute of limitations providing that no claims may be brought more than 10 years from the last act or omission of the defendant giving rise to the claim.  According to CTS, the last possible act of contamination by the company occurred in 1968, long before Mr. Stahle brought his claims.  In response, Mr. Stahle argued that the statute of limitations did not apply to his claims of “disease”and that such claims were tolled by the discovery rule in the state.

The Fourth Circuit, acting in diversity, was asked to interpret existing North Carolina law to determine whether North Carolina’s statute of limitations did preclude his claim.  Based on prior case law interpreting the statute, the Fourth Circuit determined that North Carolina would not consider disease claims to be within the category of “personal injury claims” subject to the ten year statute of limitations. According to the court, North Carolina’s statute of limitations was directed specifically at certain personal injury claims and had never been expanded to include disease claims. This was because, as North Carolina had recognized, disease claims were more likely to develop over long periods of time, often making it impossible to determine when the injury first occurred, and requiring longer periods of time for Plaintiffs to be able to bring their claims. Accordingly, the court determined that it would not unilaterally expand the scope of the statute of limitations in this instance and Mr. Stahle was entitled to bring his claim.

If you have recently been injured by another individual or company, it is important that you quickly consult with a local personal injury attorney to determine the time frame for bringing your claim.  If you have only recently learned of your injury and are concerned that your deadline for filing may have passed, make sure to consider whether tolling may apply to the statute of limitations in your case.  Our West Virginia personal injury lawyers have been serving clients throughout the state for more than 25 years and are available to help you evaluate these complicated issues. Located in Elkins, West Virginia, the firm represents clients in a wide range of injury, criminal defense, and bankruptcy matters. Call us at 1-877-637-5756 or contact us online for a free consultation.

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