Latent Occupational Diseases and the Statute of Limitations

Workplace injuries exist in many forms, one of which is occupational hazards that, overtime, can result in occupational diseases. No doubt, certain occupations come with higher risks whether it be by excessive exposure to hazardous products or prolonged physical demands of the body. Some of the most common occupational illnesses include:

• Skin diseases such as allergic and irritant dermatitis (contact dermatitis). This may include eczema, hives, rashes, and even skin cancer;
• Respiratory problems such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and lung disease;
• Musculoskeletal disorders such as carpal tunnel syndrome, and arthritis; and
• Hearing loss loss from chronic exposure to ototraumatic (damaging to the ear or hearing process) agents. This is the most common occupational disease in the United States.

There are a variety of workplace hazards which may contribute to any number of diseases, but it is often difficult for even the most reasonable and diligent employee to make the connection between symptoms and their working conditions and seek a medical diagnosis. Consequently, this predicament raises concerns over the statute of limitations and raises the necessary question—when does a plaintiff’s cause of action accrue and start the clock on the statute of limitations? The Texas Supreme Court addressed the issue in Childs v. Haussecker and Martinez v. Humble Sand & Gravel, Inc.

Both plaintiffs contracted silicosis, a long-term lung disease, as a result of on-the-job inhalation of silica dust over many years. In Haussecker, the plaintiff knew he was ill as early as 1968 and filed a subsequent workers’ compensation claim. However, his silicosis was not diagnosed until 1990 and, after seeking consultation from multiple attorneys, a suit was not filed until 1993. Similarly, in Martinez, the plaintiff sought workers’ compensation in 1989 but did not receive a diagnosis until 1991 prompting him to file suit in 1992. Defendants argued that the date the workers’ compensation claims were filed, rather than the date of medical diagnosis, began running the clock on the statute of limitations.

In its ruling, the Supreme Court sought to balance the concern that diligent plaintiffs be able to pursue their meritorious claims while also preventing defendants and Texas courts from being inundated with premature or speculative claims. Accordingly, the Court held that:

A cause of action for latent occupational disease case “accrues whenever a plaintiff’s symptoms manifest themselves to a degree or for a duration that would put a reasonable person on notice that he or she suffers from some injury and he or she knows, or in the exercise of reasonable diligence should have known, that the injury is likely work-related.”

This ruling incorporates the discovery rule which expressly requires a plaintiff to use reasonable diligence to investigate his or her injury. Once apprised of facts that would cause a reasonably diligent person to seek information about his or her injuries, a plaintiff must commence a suit for personal injuries within two years after the day the cause of action accrues. Therefore, if you or someone you know may be suffering health problems potentially caused by workplace hazards, see a medical provider right away.

Occupational diseases can be severe, costly and, in some cases, may even lead to permanent or long-term disabilities. If you or a loved one could be suffering from a job-related condition or disease, it is critical to find an experienced law firm to timely and efficiently manage your claim. Call the skilled trial lawyers at the Houston law firm Abraham, Watkins, Nichols, Agosto, Aziz & Stogner at 713-222-7211 or 1-800-870-9584 for a free personal injury consultation.