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What is the Discovery Rule?

Jessica Ellis
Updated Feb 20, 2024
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The discovery rule is a common law doctrine that often applies to cases in which a statute of limitations is involved. A statute of limitations is a set period of time in which a lawsuit is considered reasonable; once beyond this set period of, a party that wants to sue may have no legal recourse. The discover rule suggests that the statute of limitations begins, not at the time of the unlawful event, but rather from the time that the suing party became aware of the breech. The discovery rule is unevenly applied, and may be discarded by judges who disagree with the claim.

This rule is important because unlawful acts do not always have immediately known or foreseeable consequences. If a worker is unknowingly exposed to harmful chemicals, leading him or her to develop a serious medical disease ten years later, the discovery rule suggests that the statute of limitations on suing a negligent employer would begin when the illness was first detected, not at the time of the unwitting exposure. Medical cases such as this frequently employ this rule to call for an adjustment of the statutes of limitations on issues such as malpractice or employer negligence.

One critical factor in the success of invoking the discovery rule is due diligence on the behalf of the injured party. If, in the example above, the worker had consistent symptoms throughout the ten year period, but did not get medical attention until the ten year mark, a judge could decide that the worker had not shown due diligence. This is one of the issues that makes the application of the discovery rule somewhat subjective, as it is up to the individual judge to decide what the injured party could or should have known.

Traditionally, the discovery rule has not applied to mass media libel cases. This means if a person insults someone in a published book, the statutes of limitation for a libel case generally apply, even if the injured party does not find out about the book for many years. The justification for this is that the book was publicly available and at any time open to discovery. In recent years, this exclusion has been challenged by the massive use of the Internet. Critics of mass media exclusion suggest that, while public, libel on a blog or personal website may be nearly impossible to find unless a plaintiff knows exactly the right search terms to use.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Jessica Ellis
By Jessica Ellis
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis brings a unique perspective to her work as a writer for WiseGeek. While passionate about drama and film, Jessica enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics, creating content that is both informative and engaging for readers.
Discussion Comments
By Fa5t3r — On Jun 01, 2013

Just want to quickly point out that this is something different from what's known as the "discovery law" in the United States.

The discovery law is related to how and what lawyers have to share with each other before a case begins and refers to the discovery of information, rather than the discovery of the wrongdoing itself.

By irontoenail — On Jun 01, 2013

@MrsPramm - I'd say it was one of the reasons that that case wasn't ever going to be an open and shut one and why many others aren't either. The judge could have easily ruled that the people should have known that something was wrong.

The same thing can happen in fraud cases, unfortunately, where people are penalized for not taking due diligence with their own money.

It's a hard thing to call, I think, because even if someone was being completely foolish and you might even say they "deserved" to be grifted, someone else was still breaking the law when they took advantage of that fact.

By MrsPramm — On May 31, 2013

I guess the case that most people are familiar with that involves this rule is the one made famous in the film "Erin Brockovich". Because the chemicals that were used and which contaminated the ground water in that film had been stored in the 1950s and 1960s, so without the discovery rule it might have meant that the company was safe from a lawsuit.

Of course, it is complicated in that kind of case, because you might argue that they were continuing to harm people by not informing them of the danger, which was happening up to the time of the lawsuit (in fact they were actively covering up the danger).

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis...
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