Texas Supreme Court Addresses Discovery Rule
in Latent Occupational Disease Cases

By Melanie R. Margolis

In Childs v. Haussecker and Humble Sand & Gravel, Inc. v. Martinez, the Texas Supreme Court recently clarified the application of the discovery rule in cases of latent occupational disease. A latent injury or disease is by its nature often undiscoverable within the applicable limitations period. The plaintiffs in both cases had contracted silicosis as result of on-the-job inhalation of silica dust over time, which led to fibrosis of the lungs. Stating that the determination of when the plaintiffs' causes of action accrued is fact dependent, the Supreme Court held that questions of fact existed, precluding the summary judgments granted by the trial courts.

In the first case, Haussecker knew he was ill as early as 1968, but there existed a question of fact as to when he connected or should have connected his illness to his work. He filed a workers' compensation claim in August 1968. His diagnosis of silicosis was not made until April 1990. He consulted a lawyer on April 26, 1990 and was told that too much time had passed. He consulted with another lawyer in 1992 and filed suit in April 1993. (Childs v. Haussecker is a legal malpractice action against the first attorney).

In the other case, Martinez filed suit on August 13, 1992, alleging that he contracted silicosis while working as a sandblaster. He had filed a workers' compensation claim alleging a lung injury in September 1989 and knew as early as 1985 that his brother, also a sandblaster, had silicosis. Nonetheless, Martinez was idle for a year before seeking medical advice. His diagnosis of silicosis was made on October 7, 1991. Facts indicated that a reasonably diligent person in this situation would have sought information about his injuries and its causes, as required by the discovery rule, but the defendant did not offer any evidence that a diligent investigation would have led Martinez to discover his occupational illness earlier than August 13, 1990, which would have triggered the two-year statute of limitations and precluded this suit.

Both plaintiffs argued that the causes of action accrued at the time of their respective medical diagnoses. Both defendants, on the other hand, argued that the causes of action accrued when the plaintiff filed a workers' compensation claim or lawsuit alleging he suffered from an occupational injury. The lower court in both cases tied the limitations to the time the plaintiff becomes aware of the permanent nature of the injury. The Supreme Court rejected all of these arguments.

A plaintiff may know he or she suffers from an occupational injury before the medical diagnosis is made. Certainly, a diagnosis would start the limitations period, but lack of a diagnosis would not necessarily prevent its commencement, especially where the absence of diligence on the part of the plaintiff is the reason for the deficiency. The plaintiff's filing of a workers' compensation claim or lawsuit may commence the limitations, but not always. Some such claims and suits are filed by overly cautious plaintiffs and may be speculative or premature and should not form the basis of a lawsuit.

The Supreme Court balanced concerns that diligent plaintiffs be able to pursue claims with merit with the need to avoid inundating the courts and defendants with premature or speculative claims. It held that a cause of action accrues when 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 an injury and knows or with the exercise of reasonable diligence should have known that the injury is work-related.

Three justices dissented on the basis that the claims should have been barred because both Haussecker and Martinez knew or should have known when they filed their workers' compensation claims that they suffered from work-related injuries. In the dissent, Justice Hecht wrote that the discovery rule should only apply when the injury is inherently undiscoverable and objectively verifiable.