In the first two parts of this series, we learned what the statute of limitations is, and how it is applied when you have a traumatic injury at work, such as a broken bone. But not all railroad injuries occur at an identifiable time and place. Some injuries may take years to develop, such as osteoarthritis caused by poor walking conditions and bad ergonomics, or cancer caused by exposures to toxic chemicals.
Railroaders frequently suffer from a multitude of injuries that are brought about over time, not in a single traumatic event. Asbestos illnesses, various cancers, injuries caused by the vibration of the locomotive, and hearing loss, all develop over long periods of time.
In these scenarios, which we call occupational injury, or repetitive injury cases, when does the three year statute of limitations start? The federal courts have adopted something called the "discovery rule." This rule has two parts. The three-year statute of limitations begins when (1) the injury or illness first becomes known to the employee; and (2) the employee knew or should have known that the injury or illness was caused by their job with the railroad.
In order for the statute of limitations to begin - both of these conditions must occur. Thus, if you have cancer, but have no reason to suspect it was because of your railroad employment, the three-year statute of limitations has not begun. Likewise, if you fear that because of all the walking on ballast you do, you might in the future contract osteoarthritis, the three-year statute of limitations has not begun.
Importantly, the three year period does not begin from the date of the employee's initial exposure to whatever caused the injury or illness, such as toxic fumes or exhaust. That is because at the initial exposure, no injury or illness has resulted yet.
The statute of limitations also allows railroad employees to bring their claims even after they have retired. An injury such as cancer may not develop for years after retirement, and so the statute of limitations cannot begin until the injury or illness becomes known to the employee. And regardless of the date of diagnosis, the three-year statute of limitations does not start until the employee knows or should know that their injury or illness was caused by their work for the railroad. So, the date an employee retires really is not a factor in whether they may still bring their claim.
The statute of limitations is complicated, and injured railroaders should not delay in contacting an experienced railroad attorney after any diagnosis of an injury or illness at work that they suspect might be work-related.
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H. David Leibensperger