From the Desk of Partner Gordon C. Klug:
The statute of limitations protects defendants from long-dormant claims that could cause injustice and cruelty to them. On the other hand, to avoid any injustice to a plaintiff, he or she can toll the statute of limitations by declaring that they had not “discovered” that they had a right to file suit until a later date. In this unpublished opinion, the Washington Court of Appeals illustrates a situation where a plaintiff cannot claim they were unaware of the “accrual” to their cause of action and thus, could not delay filing their lawsuit.
In this unpublished opinion, the Washington Court of Appeals explained the application of the discovery rule when determining if the statute of limitation has expired. Notably, the Court highlights that a plaintiff cannot claim they were unaware of their injuries, and thus delay filing their lawsuit, when the injuries were susceptible of proof at an earlier date.
Kathleen Johnson and Steven Gentry v. Sharon O’Grady, Cassandra Kerk et al., 82468-6-I (Wash. Ct. App. Apr 4. 2022).
In June 2017, Kathleen Johnson entered into a lease agreement with Sharon O’Grady. After moving into the rental home, both she and her boyfriend (“plaintiffs”) were exposed to rodent infestation, chemicals used to address rodent infestation, and mold. These exposures and the symptoms plaintiffs suffered were detailed in a January 2018 letter that Johnson authored and sent to the “UW/Harborview Environmental Occupations Clinic.”
The letter explained that shortly after moving into the rental home, Johnson noticed a “rodent hole.” After a few months, Johnson began complaining of itchy and irritated eyes and rashes on her skin. Johnson also heard rodents scurrying in the vents. In October 2017, during a house inspection, small black hair and debris were found in the vents. That month, Johnson’s medical provider instructed her to leave the house if it was making her sick, and Johnson complied. During a third home inspection, it was determined that there was a rodent and mold problem. In November 2017, the rodent infestation was treated using chemicals.
On March 9, 2018, plaintiffs received test results that revealed they were exposed to mold and toxic chemicals. Plaintiffs were diagnosed with Mold Toxicity and Mycoses. On June 23, 2020, plaintiffs filed a complaint in King County Superior Court against O’Grady and others who worked as leasing agents for O’Grady (“defendants”). Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment in which they asserted that the statute of limitations had expired. The motion also mentioned that none of the defendants had been served. On January 16, 2021, after defendants’ motion, plaintiffs served each defendant. This was about seven months after the filing of the complaint. The trial court entered an order granting the motion and dismissing the claim. Plaintiffs filed a motion for reconsideration, which was denied. Plaintiffs then appealed.
In Washington, there is a three-year limitation period that applies to any claim of negligence causing personal injury or property damage. RCW 4.16.080(2). The statute of limitations does not begin to run until a cause of action accrues. RCW 4.16.005. Often, an action accrues immediately when the wrongful act occurs. For instance, in an automobile accident case where the Plaintiff was injured at the scene, that person’s right to file suit “accrues” on the date of the accident. The Plaintiff then has three years after the date of accrual to file suit in order to beat the three-year statute of limitations. Sometimes the plaintiff is unaware of the harm sustained, and thus the application of the statute of limitations could result in grave injustice.
To avoid this injustice, courts created “the discovery rule” of accrual which states the cause of action accrues when the plaintiff discovers, or in the reasonable exercise of diligence should discover, the elements of the cause of action. Green v. A.P.C., 136 Wn. 2d 87, 95, 960 P.2d 912 (1998). In other words, the action accrues when the plaintiff discovers the salient facts underlying the elements of the cause of action. Id. A great example of a plaintiff who sustained personal injury not knowing they were injured comes up in medical malpractice cases. A surgeon who leaves a sponge inside a patient during an operation could result in the Plaintiff not knowing about the existence of that sponge for over a decade when it begins to cause medical problems. In this situation, the Court uses the “discovery rule” and states that the Plaintiff’s right to file suit (or “accrual”) happens when the Plaintiff discovered the harm caused by the sponge left in his/her body over a decade earlier.
In this case, on appeal plaintiffs argued that the three-year statute of limitations had not expired because they did not discover that mold and toxic chemicals were the cause of their injuries until the test results on March 9, 2018. The Court of Appeals of Washington held that because the causes of plaintiffs’ injuries were susceptible of proof in November 2017, the statute of limitations expired in November, 2020.
The Court stated that plaintiffs incorrectly applied the discovery rule by contending that their claims accrued on March 9, 2018, when they received their test results. The Court held that the January 2018 letter that Johnson wrote demonstrated that the disputed causes of action accrued in November 2017. The letter detailed the exposure to mold and chemicals used to treat rodent infestations that plaintiffs experienced. Thus, the letter shows that plaintiffs were aware that the mold and chemicals were a potential cause of their injuries in November. Furthermore, the plaintiffs were not just merely suspicious of their exposure but had professionals inspect the home and informed the plaintiffs about the mold and rodent infestation. The Court held that plaintiffs could not argue that they were “unaware of the harm sustained” and that a literal application of the statute of limitations would “result in grave injustice.” Gazija v. Nichlas Jerns Co., 86 Wn.2d 215, 219, 543 P.2d 338 (1975).
After concluding the cause of action accrued in November 2017, the Court had to determine when the lawsuit “commenced.” Despite plaintiffs filing the complaint in June 2020, they had not served the defendants within 90 days pursuant to RCW 4.16.170, therefore, the lawsuit commenced on the day they served the defendants and not when they filed the complaint. Since the cause of action accrued in November 2017, the three-year statute of limitation had expired before the lawsuit commenced on January 16, 2021.
The Big Picture:
Dates matter! It is important to determine when a plaintiff has become aware of their injuries versus when they merely have better evidence to support their claims. Once a plaintiff has evidence to support a cause of action, that is when their action accrues, and the relevant statute of limitations begins to run. Additionally, it is important to pay attention to the timeline of when a plaintiff files their complaint and when they serve the defendants. Sometimes a delay in service can cause the statute of limitation to expire. In this case, the Plaintiff perfected the filing of their lawsuit AFTER the three-year statute of limitations for tort-based claims expired in November 2020. Plaintiffs’ attorney in this case simply failed to understand when accrual occurred as that date is when the relevant statute of limitations began to run.