Exceptions to the Statute of Limitations: The Discovery Rule

In our most recent blog posts we discussed the importance of understanding the concept of the “Statute of Limitations” (legalese for “deadline”). The Statute of Limitations is the legal deadline for filing your case with the court. The concept of a Statute of Limitations is justice at its harshest in practice. This is because if you miss the deadline for filing your case, you could be forever prevented from recovering damages for your injuries. If you have a serious legal case, these consequences can seem drastic and unfair, and often they are.

To mitigate the harsh practical application of statutes of limitation, New Jersey and New York courts have developed a number of “common law” (legalese for “court-made”) and legislative doctrines that work to create categories of special circumstances which soften the impact of strict application of statutes of limitation. These categories of “special circumstances” allow you to extend or “toll” the statute of limitations provided that certain conditions are met. The practical effect is to expand the statute of limitations, so a case that might ordinarily be past the deadline for filing can be filed months or even years “late.” We discuss one of the prominent doctrines below.

The “Discovery Rule”

The “discovery rule” is an exception to the statute of limitations that extends the deadline for filing a case based on the time it took to discover your injury, condition, or damages, or the time it took to reveal the misconduct or bad acts that give rise to your suit. For instance, if you slipped and fell and broke your leg at the supermarket on December 1, 2010, the deadline for filing your lawsuit would ordinarily be December 1, 2012, or two years from the date of your accident.

However, to understand the discovery rule, let’s say you slipped and fell at the supermarket on December 1, 2010 and hit your head on the linoleum floor of the shopping aisle. After hitting the floor, you feel dazed and shaky but are generally okay after the incident. Later that evening, you go to the hospital as a precaution, where everything turns up normal and you are discharged with a minor concussion.

Now, three years later, on December 1, 2013, you have a sudden stroke and are admitted to the emergency room. After some diagnostics it is revealed that your stroke was caused by a trauma-induced brain lesion that has been getting progressively worse over time. Having no prior history of head injuries, you connect the dots and realize that your injury was caused by your slip and fall at the supermarket back in 2010.

In this example, under the discovery rule, even though your accident happened on December 1, 2010, the statute of limitations for filing your case would not pass until December 1, 2015, because you only discovered or became aware of your injury on December 1, 2013. In legal jargon attorneys refer to this concept as “tolling” (ie, pausing) of the statute of limitations.

Although our example relates to a slip and fall case, the discovery rule is most commonly implicated in cases of medical malpractice and in product-related litigation where the effects of exposure to or ingestion of a harmful or toxic substance causes slow, degenerative changes in the body which do not materialize until many, many years after the actual use of the product or exposure to the substance at issue.

Common Law and Statutory Doctrine

The common law doctrine known as the discovery rule is accepted by courts in both New Jersey and New York. “New Jersey has adopted the discovery rule to postpone the accrual of a cause of action when a plaintiff does not and cannot know the facts that constitute an actionable claim.” Grunwald v. Bronkesh, 131 N.J. 483, 492 (1993).  The discovery rule delays the accrual of a cause of action until `the injured party discovers, or by an exercise of reasonable diligence and intelligence should have discovered that he may have a basis for an actionable claim.” Id.

New York CPLR § 214-c represents the codified discovery rule in New York. Under New York’s discovery rule, the deadline for filing is “computed from the date of discovery of the injury by the plaintiff or from the date when through the exercise of reasonable diligence such injury should have been discovered by the plaintiff, whichever is earlier.” N.Y. C.P.L.R. § 214-c.

The Reasonable Inquiry Requirement

Although the discovery rule provides a safety net for persons with latent injuries or damages that take a long time to manifest, there is an important caveat built into the doctrine. This caveat requires that the persons seeking respite from strict application of statutes of limitation make a “reasonable” inquiry, or exercise some degree of diligence, in discovering their injuries or damages. Szczuvelek v. Harborside Healthcare Woods Edge, 182 N.J. 275 (2005). In effect, the import of this caveat is to preclude persons from benefiting form the discovery rule if an injured person willfully ignores signs of the injury or evidence which would clarify that another person or entity is responsible.

To learn more about the discovery rule. personal injury and malpractice lawsuits and civil litigation in general, reach out to our office today at 201-925-0660 for a free consultation. The Law Office of Alexander Schachtel represents clients with personal injury cases, medical malpractice and legal malpractice cases, and general commercial, civil and business litigation across Jersey City, Hoboken, Hudson County and Northern and Central New Jersey and New York City.

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