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The Statute of Limitations Draws a Fuzzy Line

The Statute of Limitations is a time limit for which a lawsuit can be filed. That time limit can vary depending on the type of lawsuit, for personal injury cases it’s two years. It’s meant to encourage plaintiffs to take action on their legal claims, and not sit on them while the years pass. This is meant to help defendants, so they won’t be faced with legal claims many years after an alleged event or injury took place, when evidence and witnesses may be hard to find.

We are very wary of statute of limitations issues when we take a personal injury case and do all we can to make sure it’s not a problem for the client. But what might appear as a “bright line” rule of a statute of limitations can get fuzzy around the edges. It’s not a black and white rule. This Delaware personal injury case is a good example.

Plaintiff with two Diagnoses Files Lawsuit Concerning one of Them

Paul DaBaldo Jr. was diagnosed with two diseases due to asbestos exposure. The Delaware Supreme Court ruled his personal injury lawsuit against 19 defendants (including a former employer) can proceed because the statute of limitations had not run out with regard to the second disease. The court held the state is a “multi-disease jurisdiction” where each separate diagnosis is a unique claim, with each claim subject to its own, individual limitations. It reversed a Superior Court decision that the plaintiff’s claims were not timely.

DaBaldo states he was diagnosed with a mild form of asbestos-related pleural disease, but was found to have normal lung function, in 1992. He saw several physicians from 1999 to 2005 who found no significant change in the pleural calcification. DaBaldo contacted attorneys in 2007 after a co-worker was diagnosed with asbestosis (which happens when asbestos fibers and scarring from them in his lungs impact breathing). Those attorneys sent him to another physician who diagnosed him with asbestosis in July 2007.

In 2009 the personal injury complaint was filed in the Delaware Superior Court, alleging the defendants were responsible for his  asbestosis. There were no claims related to DaBaldo’s asbestos-related pleural disease.

A Superior Court judge held that Delaware’s two-year statute of limitations in asbestos cases barred DaBaldo from pursuing his claims because he was on notice of his asbestosis in 1992, when he was first diagnosed with pleural disease. DaBaldo appealed the trial court’s decision, arguing his claim did not toll until the 2007 asbestosis diagnosis. Defendants stated in addition to the asbestos related pleural disease going back to 1992, a 1999 x-ray report states there was a “known history of asbestosis.”

How Statute of Limitations Time Limits are Determined

A three-justice panel of the state Supreme Court ruled for DaBaldo, ruling that each individual diagnosis should be viewed as a separate claim. The court concluded the asbestosis claim tolled in 2007 when DaBaldo first learned, and was put on notice, that he had the illness. The court applied a four-factor test established in prior asbestos litigation to decide when the statute of limitations should start.

  1. The plaintiff’s level of knowledge and education,
  2. The extent of his recourse to a medical evaluation,
  3. The consistency of the medical diagnosis, and
  4. The plaintiff’s follow-up efforts during the period of latency following initial medical evaluation.

The court stated the word “asbestosis” first appeared in DaBaldo’s medical files in 1999, but that was as part of the X-ray report and there was no evidence it was reported to DaBaldo, nor was there an actual diagnosis that DaBaldo had asbestosis. The initial diagnosis of pleural disease made in 1992 was reconfirmed in 1999. Two more x-rays in 2001 and 2005 found no significant change in plaintiff’s condition.

The court found that after looking at the four factors, the statute of limitations started running with the July 2007 diagnosis of asbestosis, so the lawsuit was timely filed in May 2009.

If you have been injured due to the negligence of another and have questions about your legal options, for a free initial consultation, contact us online or call our office at (302) 777-1000.