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.

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, which is a state law that sets a strict time limit on your right to file a personal injury lawsuit.

How Does the Statute of Limitations Work?

All states have passed statutes of limitations, which set strict deadlines 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). 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.

In a personal injury case, the statute of limitations usually 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) that:

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

... until after the original statute of limitations deadline passed. 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 flaking off 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 due to asbestos exposure.

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 also might apply if the plaintiff is a minor (i.e., under age 18), disabled, or mentally ill or insane.

If you have questions about the statute of limitations and how it applies to your potential case, it might make sense to discuss your situation with an experienced personal injury lawyer.

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