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Court Extends Statute of Limitations for Unknowingly Ill Seaman

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled a seaman may bring a Jones Act case against his or her employer after the three year statute of limitations if the severity and source of the seaman’s injury or illness were not known until well after the action leading to the illness. In this case, Plaintiff Herbert Pretus sued his employer Diamond Offshore Drilling, Inc. after being diagnosed with hypersensitivity pneumonitis and fibrosis of the lungs. The illness arose after Pretus was assigned to clean a rig that was allegedly “wet and moldy” in 1999. Pretus began complaining of “cold-like symptoms,” including a cough, fever, aches, congestion and chest tightness shortly after cleaning the rig. Pretus was given antibiotics and antihistamines and his condition slowly improved as he finished cleaning the rig and left for home. After a few years, Pretus’ symptoms worsened to the point where he had shortness of breath and coughing. Diamond sent Pretus to Dr. James Patterson for an independent examination in March, 2005, where Dr. Patterson diagnosed Pretus with hypersensitivity pneumonitis. Pretus subsequently filed suit against Diamond in September, 2006 under the Jones Act and General Maritime Law.
The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Pretus’ three year statute of limitations did not begin until the examination by and diagnosis from Dr. Patterson. The general issue in the case is when Pretus should have discovered his illness, as therefore his cause of action, so as to trigger the running of the three year statute of limitations under the Jones Act. Under the Jones Act, the cause of action accrues when “a plaintiff has had a reasonable opportunity to discover the injury, its cause, and the link between the two.” Diamond cited numerous cases where an unknowingly ill plaintiff was unable to sue the employer because the three year period had passed. Diamond asserted that these cases set the precedent and Pretus’ statute of limitations should not be extended.
The Court focused on three issues to decide Pretus’ claim: first, the severity of the event and the initial symptoms; second, the plaintiff’s correlation of his ultimate injury with the event; and third, plaintiff’s reasonable reliance on the opinions of medical experts. The Court found that Pretus’ description of his initial symptoms as “cold-like,” along with the positive reaction to antibiotics and antihistamines, led Pretus to believe his illness was nothing similar to the severity of the cases that Diamond cited. This discredits the claim that Pretus should have known about the severity of his illness. Upon assessing the second issue, the Court emphasized that Pretus was not suing “based on those initial symptoms,” another sharp distinction between the cases Diamond cited. The Court further denied the existence of a traumatic event and the severity of Pretus’ symptoms prior to his shortness of breath in 2004. The third issue of reliance on medical experts further distinguishes Pretus from the other cases Diamond cited. Pretus diligently sought treatment for his medical problems when the initial symptoms presented themselves in 1999 before successfully receiving treatment. It was only after such treatment was ineffective in 2004 that Pretus sought further medical treatment. After extensive testing, including high resolution CT scans, the physicians were able to properly diagnose Pretus’ illness as “chronic interstitial lung inflammation, permanent fibrosis (scarring) of his long tissue and hypersensitivity pneumonitis.” Dr. Patterson explained that the condition is extremely difficult to diagnose and is commonly misdiagnosed in its early stages. These factors led the Court to rule that the cause of action occurred in 2004 when Pretus received his diagnosis, well within the three year statute of limitations under the Jones Act. Having satisfied all three issues, Pretus was awarded a trial where he brought his claim against Diamond Offshore Drilling, Inc.
Seamen injured or ill while at sea must file suit against their employer within the three year statute of limitation. The Pretus case should be considered as a rare exception to the rule. Seamen should not wait to file such a claim as the Court will very likely dismiss your case and therefore your opportunity to be compensated for your injuries. Anyone with questions regarding this case or any injury sustained while working aboard a vessel should contact the Law Office of Beard, Stacey, Trueb and Jacobsen to know your rights and options in court. To contact us, please call 206.282.3100 or visit our website at www.atsealawyer.com.