What Is the Statute of Limitations for Asbestos Lawsuits?

Don’t wait too long to file an asbestos-mesothelioma lawsuit, or you could lose your right to compensation.

Updated by , J.D. University of San Francisco School of Law
Updated 3/24/2021

If you're thinking about filing an asbestos-mesothelioma lawsuit, one of the first things to know is that a law called a "statute of limitations" puts a firm deadline on your right to bring your case to court. But understanding the filing deadline that applies to your case—and when the "clock" starts ticking for purposes of the statute of limitations—isn't always easy. In this article, we'll touch on a number of issues related to the statute of limitations in asbestos-mesothelioma cases, including:

  • how these laws work
  • what happens when asbestos exposure occurred decades ago, and
  • how exposure in multiple states—and even development of multiple illnesses—can affect the applicable deadline.

Statute of Limitations Basics

One purpose of any statute of limitations is to keep people from suing over something that occurred many years ago. For asbestos cases, most states have statutory time limits of two, three, or four years (the deadline is longer in some states, shorter in a few). In a wrongful death asbestos case, a "survival" statute might apply, setting a different deadline altogether.

A statute of limitations is said to "run" when the time period in which you are allowed to sue begins. If you miss the applicable deadline, and no special circumstances warrant an extension, you've lost your right to bring an asbestos lawsuit and get compensation from the at-fault party.

What If My Asbestos Exposure Occurred Years Ago?

Injuries resulting from asbestos exposure are very different from those arising from other kinds of harm, like car accidents. If you are injured in a car crash, the nature and extent of your injuries (and how they occurred) is pretty clear. Mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases are progressive, meaning they start out with no symptoms and gradually get worse. Symptoms can appear years or even decades after the person was exposed to asbestos.

The law takes this gradual progression into account. You aren't required to identify a specific date upon which you received your injury, and the statute of limitations "clock" almost certainly won't start on the day you were first exposed to asbestos. Rather, the trigger is when your symptoms have progressed to the point that a diagnosis of asbestos-related disease can be made. Learn more about why diagnosis is crucial in a "mass tort" case.

Will My Right to File an Asbestos Lawsuit Expire?

The statute of limitations "clock" generally begins to run at the time the plaintiff "knew or should have known" that their injury was caused by asbestos exposure. For most people this occurs at the time of diagnosis of mesothelioma or other asbestos-related illness.

If you're disabled and had to quit working as a result of your workplace-related asbestos exposure, the clock might begin to run on the date you stopped working. If you are disabled as a result of some other condition—such as a back injury or non-asbestos-related disease—the clock will probably begin to run with the date of diagnosis.

In some circumstances the clock will be said to start even without a date of diagnosis, because it would have been reasonable for you to have known that asbestos exposure contributed to your disease. For example, if your union does asbestos exposure screenings, the defendants will argue that you should have known you were at risk for asbestos-related diseases, and that the statutory period began when your symptoms became apparent.

Determining the Applicable State's Statute

If you've lived and worked in the same state all your life, then your state's statute of limitations will apply if you decide to file an asbestos lawsuit.

But what if you worked in one state and retired to another, or worked in more than one state? The applicable statute might be determined by where most of your exposure occurred, or by where you lived when you were first diagnosed with an asbestos-related disease.

If the statutory deadline has passed in one state but not another, your attorney might try to file a case in the state with the longer statutory filing period; of course, expect the defendants to argue that the law in the state with the shorter deadline should apply. Jurisdiction (where the case should be heard) can become a complicated legal issue that has to be decided by a judge.

What If I Have More Than One Asbestos Disease?

Claimants sometimes develop an asbestos-related cancer years after they initially were diagnosed with a condition like asbestosis. Generally, the cancer is treated as a second injury, which means a new statute of limitations time period applies, even if the asbestosis-related deadline has passed.

Keep in mind that if you settled a lawsuit related to your asbestosis, you probably won't be able to sue the defendants you settled with. Occasionally, defendants in an asbestosis case restrict a settlement to asbestosis injuries (meaning they can be sued again if a different disease occurs) but this is fairly uncommon.

"Late Discovery" Cases

Occasionally a person develops cancer or dies as a result of asbestos exposure without knowing that such exposure was the cause of their illness or death. Often this situation arises because there is asbestos exposure that the injured person did not know about at the time of the diagnosis. If the statutory deadline has already passed, an attorney can argue that the clock should begin to run at the time of discovery of the asbestos exposure, not at the time of illness or death.

Talk to an Attorney If You Have Questions

Factors such as when you first became noticeably ill, why and when you stopped working, what states you have lived or worked in, and how much you can be expected to know about asbestos as a cause of disease can all play into your right to file a lawsuit. If you have questions about the statute of limitations deadline and how it applies in your particular case, it may be time to talk with an experienced asbestos lawyer.

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