The Washington Court of Appeals Clarifies When the Statute of Limitations for a Negligence Claim Begins to Run Under the Discovery Rule

Dep’t of Transp. v. Seattle Tunnel Partners, 2019 BL 36988, 2 (Wash. App. Div. 2 Feb. 05, 2019)

On January 8, 2019, the Court of Appeals for the State of Washington reversed and remanded in part a trial court’s grant of summary judgment in a tunnel-boring construction case.  Specifically, the Court clarified that the three-year statute of limitations for negligence claims begins to run as soon as the aggrieved party becomes aware of the factual elements of the claims.  It does not matter whether the underlying cause of the claims remains disputed.

This case arises from the construction of an underground bored tunnel in Seattle, Washington.  In 2001, the Washington State Department of Transportation (“Department of Transportation”) engaged Appellant WSP USA, Inc. (“WSP”), an engineering and design firm, to evaluate the repair and replacement of the Alaskan Way Viaduct.  WSP then engaged Appellant Shannon and Wilson (“S&W”), a geotechnical firm, to conduct geological profiles and groundwater testing.  WSP and S&W conducted various field explorations and ultimately installed a pumping well that had an eight-inch steel casing.

Ten years later, the Department of Transportation and Respondent Seattle Tunnel Partners (“STP”) entered into a design-build contract to execute the tunnel plan.  Pursuant to the contract, STP procured a tunnel boring machine and began boring the tunnel.  Soon thereafter in 2013, STP encountered the eight-inch steel casing that WSP and S&W installed, which lied directly above the tunnel boring machine.  STP continued tunneling but the rate slowed and the machine’s temperature rose.  STP determined at that time that the steel casing most likely caused the damage experienced by the tunnel boring machine.

The Department of Transportation eventually forced STP to shut down the machine and sued STP for breach of the design-build contract.  In 2017, STP filed a complaint against S&W and WSP for professional negligence, negligence misrepresentation, and indemnification.  STP sought damages for hitting the steel casing that resulted in impacts and delays.

S&W and WSP jointly moved for summary judgment on the grounds that STP’s complaint was untimely pursuant to the three-year statute of limitations for tort claims.  The trial court denied the motion for summary judgment and subsequent motion for reconsideration on the grounds that S&W and WSP failed to establish STP had actual knowledge as to the cause of its damages before the statute of limitations lapsed.

The Court of Appeals disagreed.  Under the discovery rule, a cause of action does not begin to accrue until an injured party knows, or in the exercise of due diligence should have discovered, the factual bases of the causes of action.  Yet, the statute of limitations will begin to run so long as the injured party has notice of the facts, even if the party cannot conclusively prove that tortious conduct has occurred.  The record was thus clear that STP indeed had sufficient notice of the role of the steel casing over three years before its lawsuit against S&W and WSP.  The Court stated that it does not matter that the actual cause of STP’s damages remained disputed.  As a result, the Court of Appeals concluded that the trial court erred in denying S&W and WSP’s motion for summary judgment.

To view the full text of the court’s decision, courtesy of Bloomberg Law, click here.

– Christine Z. Fan

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