4th Circuit Rules Statute of Limitations Starts After Injury, Not Diagnosis

On November 6, Fourth Circuit Judge Henry Franklin Floyd authored an opinion ruling that under Virginia state law, a two-year statute of limitations for personal injury claims commenced at the time of injury, not at the time of diagnosis, even for cases of “coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (CWP). known colloquially as ‘black lung.’” The underlying litigation involved a coal miner attempting to sue the creator of allegedly defective respirators that the plaintiff asserted failed to “protect himself from inhaling excessive amounts (of)…harmful coal dust.”

The court explained the pertinent facts of the underlying litigation as follows: In 2000, Gary Adams, the plaintiff miner, received notice that lung x-rays appeared to produce evidence of the presence of CWP, due to purported scarring present in his lungs. In 2006, Adams received a second notice, albeit this time confirming what the prior x-rays assumed. Adams claimed that, despite the notice confirming his risk of black lung, he failed to take further action, as he felt “wide open health” with no symptoms present. Between 2007-2012, the plaintiff received conflicting messages about whether he suffered from CWP, asthma, bronchitis, granulomas, hypertension, or sleep apnea. In 2014, Adams was diagnosed again with CWP, with the disease having developed to the severest stage, and the plaintiff now “struggl(ing) to walk uphill, cough(ing) regularly, experienc(ing) chest pain, and wheezing with exertion.” Three days shy of two years from the date of his final CWP diagnosis, the plaintiff filed a personal injury suit against the defendant, Mine Safety Appliances Company. The defendant responded with a motion for summary judgment, asserting that as a matter of law, the legal claim stood to be time-barred as the two-year statute of limitations commenced at the time the plaintiff experienced the first injury from CWP, even if said injury produced no symptoms and, thus, no knowledge to the injured party. 

The district court ruled and the Fourth Circuit affirmed in favor of the defendant’s argument. The appellate panel explained that the law in Virginia was clear: “The Virginia Supreme Court has…recognized that a plaintiff’s cause of action in a latent disease case does not accrue on the date of exposure, but instead on the date a plaintiff develops the disease, and thereby acquires the injury giving that plaintiff a right of action. While a disease might occur after a plaintiff’s exposure to a harmful substance, it might also occur before it is discovered. Virginia courts have repeatedly explained that a plaintiff’s cause of action accrues on the actual date of injury, not the date on which that injury is discovered by or communicated to the plaintiff.”

Judge Floyd concluded by taking judicial notice of the “manifest unfairness” that the statute of limitations posed to plaintiffs like Adams. The court wrote that, “Adams is faced with a catch-22 from which Virginia law provides no escape. If he brought his claims within the two-year statute of limitations, he would have been unable to prove them, because doctors at the time had not clinically correlated his symptoms with CWP. Now that he can prove his injuries were caused by the inhalation of coal dust, the claims are barred by Virginia law. It is difficult to imagine how any miner could bring a personal injury claim based on black lung, given that it will likely remain hidden or at least ambiguous throughout the two-year limitations window. Today, Adams struggles with the most basic activities of life, but he lacks any ability to remedy his injuries.”

Adams is represented by the Martin Walton Law Firm