Rhode Island Personal Injury Laws and Statutes of Limitations

Get the basics on Rhode Island personal injury laws, including how long you have to file your lawsuit, special rules for making claims against the government, what happens if you're partly to blame for the accident, and much more.

By , Attorney University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Law
Updated 3/12/2024

You've been injured in Rhode Island, and you're thinking about a personal injury (PI) insurance claim or a lawsuit. But you don't know much about the state's personal injury laws or court procedures. We'll fill you in on the basics.

We start with Rhode Island's general three-year personal injury statute of limitations. Then we'll explain some other time limits that apply in specific PI cases, and situations when your filing deadline might be extended. From there, we cover making personal injury claims against the government, where and how to file your lawsuit, limits on the compensation (called "damages") you can collect, and much more.

Deadlines for Filing Rhode Island Personal Injury Lawsuits

Most Rhode Island personal injury lawsuits are covered by a three-year filing deadline, called a "statute of limitations." But some kinds of cases have more specific limitation periods. We'll review some examples.

The General Rule: Three Years to File Your Personal Injury Suit in Court

You have three years, usually from the date you're injured, to file your PI lawsuit in court. (R.I. Gen. Laws § 9-1-14(b) (2024).) Unless there's a more specific statute of limitations that applies, this is the rule that controls most PI cases. It typically applies to cases involving:

Filing Deadlines in Other Cases

Rhode Island has other statutes of limitations that apply in specific cases. Here are some examples.

Spoken defamation. When someone makes a defamatory statement about you orally instead of in writing, that's called "slander." You have just one year from the date a defamatory statement is spoken about you to file suit. (R.I. Gen. Laws § 9-1-14(a) (2024).)

Medical malpractice. If you've been injured by a health care provider's malpractice, special rules apply. Most often, the lawsuit filing deadline is three years from the date of the malpractice. (R.I. Gen. Laws § 9-1-14.1 (2024).) But in some circumstances, the clock might start running at a later date.

  • Injured minor. A minor who's injured has until they reach 21 years old to sue. (R.I. Gen. Laws § 9-1-14.1(1) (2024).)
  • Mental incompetence. A person who's disabled by "mental incompetence" has three years from the date the disability is removed to file suit. (R.I. Gen. Laws § 9-1-14.1(2) (2024).)
  • Discovery rule. When your malpractice injury couldn't reasonably be discovered at the time it happened, the three-year limitation period doesn't begin running until the date that you should have discovered the malpractice, had you been reasonably diligent. (R.I. Gen. Laws § 9-1-14.1(3) (2024).)

Note that this same statute of limitations also applies to cases of veterinarian, accounting, insurance, or real estate agent or broker malpractice.

Injuries resulting in death. When personal injuries cause death, the victim's surviving relatives or estate might decide to file a wrongful death lawsuit against the responsible party. The filing deadline, in most cases, is three years from the date of death. When the misconduct causing death isn't known at the time of death, the three-year limitation period starts on the earlier of the date that the wrongful act is discovered or with reasonable diligence, it should have been discovered. (R.I. Gen. Laws § 10-7-2(c) (2024).)

(Learn more about Rhode Island wrongful death lawsuits.)

Suits against the government. Rhode Island has a three year deadline on suits against the state, or against a political subdivision, city, or town. The clock runs from the date you're injured. (R.I. Gen. Laws § 9-1-25(a) (2024).)

Can the Filing Deadline Be Extended?

In some situations, yes, Rhode Island law allows an extension of the statute of limitations deadline. Have a look at these examples.

Responsible party conceals the claim from you. When the person who's legally responsible for causing your claim fraudulently conceals it from you "by actual misrepresentation," the statute of limitations doesn't start running until the date you discover the claim. (R.I. Gen. Laws § 9-1-20 (2024).)

Legal disability. If a legally disabled person suffers a personal injury, the limitation deadline starts running on the date the disability is removed. For purposes of this law, legally disabled means a person who's:

  • a minor (younger than 18 years old)
  • of "unsound mind," or
  • outside the United States.

(R.I. Gen. Laws § 9-1-19 (2024).)

Absence from Rhode Island. In some cases, when the person who caused your injury leaves Rhode Island, the statute of limitations doesn't run until they return. (R.I. Gen. Laws § 9-1-18 (2024).)

Suing the Government in Rhode Island

Suing the Rhode Island government—state or local—isn't the same as suing a private person or a business. In addition to the statute of limitations, discussed above, special rules and deadlines often apply. Among other things, you'll need to navigate your way around government immunities, laws that protect the government (and sometimes, its officers and employees) from suit.

If you're considering a claim against the government, you'll want to have an experienced Rhode Island government lawsuit attorney on your side.

Pre-Suit Notice Requirements

Many states have an across-the-board pre-suit notice requirement for lawsuits against the government. In other words, before you can sue the government, you're required to provide advance written notice that you were injured and you have a claim.

In Rhode Island, you don't have to give notice before you sue the state. But notice is sometimes required before you can sue a Rhode Island political subdivision, city, or town. Keep in mind that giving notice of your claim isn't the same as filing a lawsuit in court.

Claim against a town or city, generally. Before you can sue a town or city for your personal injury, you must submit to the town or city council a written "account" of your claim, including a description of how it happened. Once you've done that, the town or city has 40 days to resolve your claim. If it doesn't, you're allowed to sue. (R.I. Gen. Laws § 45-15-5 (2024).)

Be sure to allow enough time so that you can file suit in court within the three-year deadline.

Claim against a town for injuries on highway, causeway, or bridge. When you're injured on a highway, causeway, or bridge that's maintained by a town, you must give the town council written notice of your injury within 60 days. (R.I. Gen. Laws § 45-15-9(a) (2024).) Be sure your notice meets the requirements of R.I. Gen. Laws § 45-15-10 (2024). If your claim isn't resolved within 40 days, you can file a lawsuit. The deadline to sue is three years from the date you're injured.

Limit on Damages

In personal injury lawsuits against Rhode Island or its political subdivisions, cities, or towns, as a rule the most you can collect for damages is $100,000. (See R.I. Gen. Laws §§ 9-31-2, 9-31-3, 45-15-12 (2024).)

When You're Partly to Blame for the Accident

In most PI cases, to win damages you must prove that the party you're suing (the "defendant") was negligent (careless). Typically, the defendant will answer that you were negligent too, and that your negligence should reduce or eliminate the damages you can collect. This legal defense, called "comparative negligence," is available in Rhode Island.

Rhode Island's Comparative Negligence Rule

Under Rhode Island law, any negligence attributed to you reduces your damages by that amount. As long as you weren't 100% to blame, though, you can still collect some damages. Of course, if you're found to be completely at fault (that is, 100% negligent), you can't collect any damages. (R.I. Gen. Laws § 9-20-4 (2024).)

Example: Rhode Island Comparative Negligence

While grocery shopping one afternoon, you don't notice a broken floor tile in your path. You trip and fall on the broken tile, breaking your kneecap. After you've recovered from your injury, you sue the store for negligence. The store claims, in response, that you were negligent too, because you didn't watch where you were going.

After a jury trial, the jurors assess your total damages at $150,000. They find the grocery store was 85% negligent, but they assign the remaining 15% of the fault to you. How much of your total damages are you allowed to collect? Because you were 15% negligent, you can collect 85% of your damages: $150,000 x 85% = $127,500. The grocery store will write you a check for that amount.

Even if the jury found that you were 99% to blame, you could still collect 1% of your damages, or $1,500.

Where and How to File a Personal Injury Lawsuit

Your attorney will prepare and file the necessary documents to file your PI lawsuit. Where and how your case is filed is governed by Rhode Island law and by court rules called the Rhode Island Rules of Civil Procedure. These rules are complex and you'll need to rely on your lawyer's expertise to understand how they're interpreted and applied.

Here's an overview of how the process works.

Where Your Lawsuit Is Filed

Most PI lawsuits are filed in the Rhode Island court that has authority to hear nearly all civil (meaning non-criminal) cases like yours. That court is called the superior court. If you're asking for more than $10,000 in damages—and you probably are—that's where your PI case will be filed. When you want less than $10,000 in damages, you can (sometimes you must) file your case in the district court.

How to File Your Lawsuit

Your PI court case likely will begin by filing a complaint, along with some other documents, in the superior court. The contents of your complaint will depend on the kind of PI case you're filing. In general, though, the complaint will describe, in separately numbered paragraphs:

  • the parties who are involved in the case
  • when, where, and how you claim to have been injured
  • what you think the defendant did wrong to cause your injuries
  • your injuries and losses, and
  • the remedy (usually damages) you're asking the court to award you.

Unless the court waives it, you'll also need to pay the court filing fee. Once you've filed the necessary paperwork, you must serve each defendant with your lawsuit, as required by the court rules. Once again, your attorney will take care of these details.

Liability for Dog Bite and Other Animal Attacks

In many states, dog owners are protected from liability to others—to some degree—the first time their dog injures someone. If the owner had no reason to believe the dog was dangerous, they can be shielded from legal liability by what's often called the "one free bite" rule.

There are no free bites in Rhode Island. R.I. Gen. Laws § 4-13-16 (2024) makes a dog owner strictly liable for injuries their dog causes. In other words, the owner is liable even if the dog never before showed any dangerous or aggressive tendencies or behaviors. In fact, Rhode Island's law might be called the "two strikes and the dog is out" rule.

Here's how it works.

For the first bite or attack. The first time a dog that's outside its enclosure attacks or bites someone and causes injury, the owner is strictly liable for all injuries, plus the costs of the lawsuit.

For the second bite or attack. The next time the same dog, outside its enclosure, attacks or bites someone and causes injury:

  • the owner is liable for an amount equal to double the damages the dog caused, and
  • the court "shall" order that the dog be killed.

Damage Caps in Rhode Island Personal Injury Cases

A number of states have put limits (also called "caps") on the damages that can be recovered in personal injury cases. Noneconomic damages for things like pain and suffering, emotional distress, disability and disfigurement, and loss of enjoyment of life are favorite targets of these laws. So are punitive damages.

With one exception, Rhode Island doesn't have damage caps. As mentioned above, damages of all kinds in a suit against the government are capped at $100,000. With that exception, there are no damage caps in Rhode Island personal injury cases.

Get Help With Your Rhode Island Personal Injury Case

We've covered some of the basics of Rhode Island PI law. If you've been hurt and you're thinking about filing an insurance claim or a lawsuit, there's much more involved. An experienced Rhode Island personal injury lawyer understands the filing deadlines, what to do if you're partly to blame for the accident, how and where to file your lawsuit, and more, and can guide you through the process.

When you're ready to move forward with your case, here's how to find a lawyer near you.

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