If you've been injured by a product and you're thinking about filing a legal claim, it's crucial to understand and comply with the "statute of limitations," which sets a deadline on getting your case started. In this article, we'll cover:
A statute of limitations is a law that sets a strictly-enforced deadline on the right to bring a lawsuit to court. If you don't file your lawsuit before the statute of limitations deadline passes, the judge will almost certainly throw out your case, no matter how good your claim may be. There are different statutes of limitations for different kinds of cases, and these rules vary from state to state.
The time limits for lawsuits over defective products vary. In most states, the statute of limitations that will apply to these cases is the same one that covers injury lawsuits in general. In some states, "product liability" cases (which include injury claims over defective products) have their own deadline.
For the time limit for personal injury cases in your state, see Nolo's chart of statutes of limitations in all 50 states. But remember, your state may have a specific rule that applies to lawsuits involving defective products.
If you discover that the statute of limitations in your state has expired, you might still be able to file a timely claim in another state (for example, where one of the defendants is located) if that state has a longer statute of limitations for defective product claims.
In some defective product cases, determining when the time limit starts to run is fairly straightforward. For example, if your finger is nearly severed by a defective electric carving knife, and in your state the statute of limitations for product liability claims is two years, you must bring your lawsuit within two years from the day your finger was injured.
But some types of injuries are more difficult to detect, and may not be discovered until months or even years after the injury actually occurs. For example, if your lungs are injured by inhaling fumes from a chemical product you used, you might not discover your injury until you develop lung inflammation many months or even years later.
In such cases, the issue of when exactly the statute of limitations "clock" began to run may be crucially important to whether you can still file a defective product claim, or if you've missed the deadline.
Let's look at the two most common rules.
In some states, the statute of limitations begins to run when the injury actually occurs. This can have harsh consequences if the injured person doesn't discover the injury until after the statute of limitations has already expired. This rule can also create arguable issues in situations where the injured person doesn't know they've actually been harmed. For example:
In many states, the statute of limitations begins to run only when the injured person discovers (or should have discovered, in the eyes if the law) the injury, and its source.
For example, let's say you used the popular weed-killing product Roundup for ten years, and five years after you last used it you were diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. In a state with an injury-discovery rule, the time limit on your defective product claim would begin to run on the date of your diagnosis (that is, when you discovered your injury), not when you first started using Roundup, or even when you last used it. (Learn more about lawsuits over Roundup.)
Getting a lawsuit dismissed because the plaintiff didn't file in time is an easy out for a defendant. Because of this, defendants will pursue this defense whenever possible.
Sometimes a manufacturer will deliberately notify potential plaintiffs that a product is defective in order to start the clock ticking on the statute of limitations. However, this notification often just gives the consumer some inkling that the product might be defective, without explicitly saying so.
For example, the manufacturer might send a letter offering to replace the product, which has the legal effect of starting the clock ticking without actually informing consumers that they have a certain amount of time in which to bring a lawsuit.
For example, in the 2000 movie Erin Brockovich, the company responsible for contaminating the local water supply sends a letter offering free medical care to potentially affected claimants, in an attempt to start the statute of limitations clock.
Some states have additional time limits that prevent consumers from suing companies for injuries caused by defective products manufactured or sold many years ago.
For example, a state might set an absolute time limit on defective product claims of twelve years from the date on which a defective product is sold. If you miss this longer deadline, you are out of luck no matter when you discovered or should have discovered your injury.
These secondary time limits are called "statutes of repose." The specifics of statutes of repose may vary from state to state, and not all states have them. Statutes of repose generally establish a second, longer deadline in states that follow the injury-discovery rule (explained above).
Depending on the specifics of your case, it can be tricky to determine when you must file your defective product lawsuit. If you need assistance, you might want to talk to a lawyer who has experience with these kinds of cases.
And certainly when it comes to the bigger picture of filing your lawsuit, going up against the product manufacturer, and coming away with a fair result, there's simply no substitute for having an experienced legal professional on your side.
An effective product liability case almost always requires:
Bottom line: If you've been injured by a dangerous or defective product, your best first step is discussing your situation with an experienced legal professional. Learn more about finding and working with an injury attorney. You can also use the tools on this page to connect with a lawyer near you.