What is the Discovery Rule?

6953026-speakerOne of the most critical aspects of filing a civil action rests with remaining in compliance with the state’s statute of limitations. This is important because once the statute of limitations expires the standing needed to bring forth a case has elapsed. In other words, the deadline for filing a lawsuit has expired. However, while most people have heard of the term statute of limitations, they possess a limited understanding of how these statutes are applied in civil suits. Namely, they assume that all statutes of limitations are based on calendar years from the origination point of an injury or incident. In other words, if the statute of limitations on medical malpractice is two years, then two years to the day after a physician is guilty of medical malpractice would the end date to initiate legal proceedings. This is a woefully incorrect assessment that ignores a critical legal component: the Discovery Rule.

As the name would implies, the Discovery Rule centers on when the actual injury was discovered or when the injury should have reasonably been discovered. So, the role of the Discovery Rule is to toll the calendar date of the statute of limitations from the origination point of the civil wrong. Instead, it is moved to a point where the wrong was discovered or when it should have reasonably been discovered.

In many instances, if a patient suffers from a latent disease (a disease that can take over a decade to reveal itself) such as mesothelioma the Discovery Rule acts as a means of safeguarding legal rights for the injured party. How does this work in practice? Consider the following example as an illustration: A patient enters the care of a physician complaining of chest pains on Jan 1, 2008. He is given a clean bill of health, told he has minor congestion, and goes home. His chest pains come and go for two years. On January 3, 2010, he suffers from serious chest pains and seeks medical care. It is then discovered he has a serious and potentially fatal respiratory problem. Worst of all, this problem should have been discovered two years and two days ago but the examining physician improperly conducted the examination.

Since the patient did not discover his serious injury (the worsening of the chest problem) until after two years had elapsed from the faulty diagnosis, the statute of limitations for filing an action will not be considered expired. However, had he been suffering from serious chest pains throughout the entire two year period, the statute of limitations might be considered expired since he should have had reason to know his condition was serious.

Of course, this is a generalized example as different cases of medical malpractice (or any other civil case) will have its own unique specifics to the Discovery Rule. In Pennsylvania, thankfully, the laws surrounding the Discovery Rule have been strengthened due to Supreme Court rulings. Specifically, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has stated: “the statute must be interpreted in accordance with reason and common sense. Accordingly, the court allows tolling of the statute of limitations in situations in which the legislature’s intent is better served by hearing suit than by barring it.” In other words, the Discovery Rule serves the greater good. That is why it exists and that is why it is so helpful.