On Thursday the Mississippi Supreme Court reversed and rendered a $13 million judgment in American Optical Corporation v. Rankin. This was a Jefferson County silica case where the date of the judgment was February 24, 2015.
The Court reversed on a statute of limitations issue. The plaintiff filed suit in 2013. Defendant argued that the statute of limitations barred the claim because plaintiff knew he had lung disease more than 3 years before filing suit. The Supreme Court agreed in a 7-2 opinion drafted by Justice Coleman.
The case turned on application of the discovery rule. The majority opinion concludes:
Reasonable minds could not have differed in answering the question on the special verdict form: ‘Do you find by a preponderance of the evidence that [Rankin] knew or should have known before May 13, 2010, that he had the lung injury alleged in this lawsuit?’ It is undisputed that Ranking was aware of and sought treatment for lung disease, COPD, in 2007. Moreover, Rankin’s experts opined that Rankin’s myriad of remaining medical conditions, of which he was aware and for which he sought treatment before May 13, 2010, were related ‘in part’ or ‘exacerbated’ by silica exposure. Accordingly, we hold that the trial court erred by failing to grant AO’s motion for a directed verdict because Rankin’s claims are time barred.
Justice Kitchens dissented, arguing that the case should be reversed and remanded. The dissent argues that while plaintiff’s claims for COPD damages are time barred, his claim for silicosis is not because the silicosis diagnosis occurred after plaintiff filed suit.
I’m not a fan of discovery rule law because it can play out like it did here. The parties and court bore the time and expense of trying a case that was ultimately decided on an affirmative defense.
The trial court submitted the question to the jury because of cases that hold that resolution of the discovery rule (what the plaintiff knew and when) is often a question of fact for the jury.
This is an area where a plaintiff lawyer is arguably better off if the court makes the factual determination. I am 0-2 in cases representing the plaintiff where we had to argue that the discovery rule tolled the statute of limitations. We lost both cases on motions for summary judgment, which was my strong preference to losing on the issue at trial or on appeal. If I’m going to lose, I’d rather lose sooner than later.
This is just a tough area for plaintiff attorneys. You know the issue is there when you take the case. And you can’t ever get completely comfortable with it until the case favorably resolves. It could probably be argued that plaintiff lawyers should just stay away from cases where they have to rely on the discovery rule to get past the statute of limitations.