Time Limits for a Personal Injury Lawsuit: What is the Statute of Limitations

Every state has one; learn about these strict filing deadlines for personal injury lawsuits.

Updated by , J.D.

If you think you might have a valid personal injury case after any kind of accident, it's crucial to pay attention to the statute of limitations. Here's what to know at the outset:

  • A statute of limitations is a state law that sets a strict time limit on your right to file a personal injury lawsuit.
  • If you try to file your lawsuit after the applicable statute of limitations deadline has passed, the court is sure to dismiss your case, and you'll have lost any chance to get court-ordered compensation for your injuries and related losses.
  • A few rare situations can effectively extend the filing deadline.
  • Even during the insurance claim process, insurance adjusters keep their eye on the statute of limitations lawsuit-filing deadline, and so should you.

How Does the Statute of Limitations Work?

All states have passed statutes of limitations for the filing of different kinds of lawsuits in the state's civil court system. Most states have a statute of limitations that specifically applies to personal injury cases (or to lawsuits alleging "negligence," which is the legal fault theory under which most personal injury lawsuits are brought).

Whatever statute of limitations applies to your potential case, if the deadline has passed and you try to file a lawsuit anyway, your case will almost certainly be dismissed. There are exceptions that could effectively extend the filing deadline, but they're fairly rare. More on these later.

Even if you don't plan on filing a lawsuit after an accident, it's important to understand the statute of limitations in your state, and how it applies to your situation. If you're making an insurance claim, it's crucial to leave yourself plenty of time to take things to court, or at least have that option in your back pocket as a bargaining chip during personal injury settlement negotiations.

When Does the Statute of Limitations "Clock" Start?

In most personal injury cases, the statute of limitations "clock" begins running on the day you were injured. For example, in a car accident case, it's the date on which the crash occurred.

The Standard Statute of Limitations in Personal Injury Cases

The statute of limitations in personal injury cases ranges from as short as one year to as long as six years, depending on the state. For details on the law where you live, check the statute of limitations in your state.

The "Discovery Rule" Exception to the Statute of Limitations

Most states have some form of a "discovery rule" exception to the standard statute of limitations deadline in an injury case. In general, the discovery rule extends the filing deadline in situations where the injured person did not know (and had no reasonable basis for knowing), until after the original statute of limitations deadline passed, that:

  • they suffered an injury, and/or
  • that the potential defendant's actions may have caused the injury.

This situation is not as uncommon as you might think.

Example Of The Discovery Rule

Let's say your state has a two-year statute of limitations for personal injury cases, but that your state has a discovery rule that says that the statute of limitations does not begin running in a personal injury case until the date the plaintiff: 1) knew or had sufficient notice that he/she was injured; and 2) knew or had sufficient notice of the cause of the harm.

Let's say you were exposed to asbestos in the insulation in the pipes in your basement, and, as a result, 20 years later, you developed mesothelioma, a form of lung cancer that only comes from asbestos exposure. Your doctor asks you if you have any asbestos in the house. Testing reveals that the pipes in your basement have asbestos insulation, and that the insulation has been exposed and airborne the entire time you've been living in the house.

The statute of limitations deadline has probably passed (though your lawyer might argue that ongoing exposure equals an ongoing injury), so perhaps the only way you can file a personal injury lawsuit over your asbestos exposure would be through reliance on the discovery rule. So your argument would be that the statute of limitations "clock" didn't begin running until the day your doctor told you that your lung cancer was caused by asbestos exposure.

Relying on the "discovery" rule isn't an option in many kinds of personal injury cases (those stemming from car accidents or dog bites, for example). But in addition to the asbestos example we just discussed, the rule might legitimately come into play in medical malpractice lawsuits and product liability cases (involving defective and dangerous products).

Other Ways to Extend the Standard Deadline

In most states, there are several other methods by which the statute of limitations can be extended. For example, if the defendant left the state for any period of time after causing the accident that led to your injury, in most states, the statute of limitations "clock" will pause. So, if the statute of limitations time window for filing a personal injury lawsuit is three years, and the defendant was outside the state for a year after the accident, the statute of limitations in your case would be extended by another year.

Special lawsuit-filing rules usually also apply if the plaintiff is a minor, or is subject to some kind of mental disability. In California, for example, the statute of limitations clock will be paused if the injured person was under the age of 18 or was "lacking the legal capacity to make decisions" (i.e. subject to a temporary or permanent mental illness) at the time of the underlying accident.

Getting Help With a Personal Injury Case

After any kind of accident, it's important to understand how the statute of limitations applies to any lawsuit you might end up filing. When your injuries are significant and it looks like the insurance company or the at-fault party won't come to the table with a fair settlement offer, the statute of limitations deadline becomes crucial.

To protect your rights and your options, it might make sense to discuss your situation with an experienced attorney. You can use the features on this page to connect with a personal injury lawyer near you. You can also learn more about finding the right personal injury lawyer for you and your case, and how personal injury lawyers get paid.

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