If you have been injured by a product you used and want to sue to recover for your injuries, keep in mind that you only have a certain amount of time in which to file a defective product liability claim. The legal term for this time limit is the "statute of limitations." Every state has a statute of limitations that applies specifically to defective product liability claims. (To learn more about these time limits in general, read Nolo's article Statutes of Limitations: Is It Too Late to Sue?)
No matter where you bring your case, you should file your lawsuit as soon as possible, or at a minimum, make sure you know the deadline. If you don't file your lawsuit before the statute of limitations expires, the judge will almost certainly throw out your case, no matter how good your claim may be.
The time limits for products liability claims vary from state to state. No state has a statute of limitations for defective product claims of less than one year. Many have a two-year time limit, some have a three-year time limit, and a few states have time limits of four or more years. For the time limit for injuries in your state, see Chart: Statutes of Limitations in All 50 States.
If you discover that the statute of limitations in your state has expired, keep in mind that 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 sliced off 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 you lost your finger.
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 defective chemical product you used, you may 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 (or time limit) began to run may be crucially important to whether you can still file a defective product claim or if you've missed the deadline.
For these trickier cases, the rules on when the time limit begins to run vary from state to state. Here are 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.
In many states, the statute of limitations begins to run only when the injured person discovers (or should have discovered) the injury. For example, let's say you were injured by inhaling fumes from a defective chemical product and you discovered your injury years later when your doctor diagnosed you with lung damage. 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 lung damage diagnosis (that is, when you discovered your injury), not when you inhaled the noxious fumes (in other words, when the injury actually occurred).
In these states the statute of limitation can begin to run when the injured person should have discovered the injury. The "should have discovered" part of this rule means that the deadline may start to run even though you do not actually know you have been injured. For example, in the lung injury hypothetical mentioned above, let's say you develop a terrible cough but delay going to a doctor for several months. A court might decide that the statute of limitations started to run when you developed the cough, as opposed to when you finally went to the doctor, because you should have discovered your injury when you first developed the serious cough.
These issues are likely to arise only if your claim is on the edge of being timely, so the sooner you file your claim, the better.
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 movie Erin Brockovich, the big company defendant sent a letter offering free medical care -- 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 nature or your case, it may be tricky to determine when you must file a defective product lawsuit or if you've missed the deadline.
If you need assistance, you may wish to talk to a lawyer who specializes in products liability. For help on choosing a good product liability attorney, read Nolo's article Finding a Personal Injury Lawyer. Or, go to Nolo's Lawyer Directory for a list of personal injury attorneys in your geographical area (click on the "Types of Cases" and "Work History" tabs to learn whether a lawyer is experienced with product liability claims).
To find out how to make the best case for yourself and win your personal injury claim, get How to Win Your Personal Injury Claim, by Joseph Matthews (Nolo).