If you were injured in a slip and fall, you may be able to turn to the civil court system for a remedy. But whenever you have a potential personal injury lawsuit on your hands, you have to pay attention to the statute of limitations. Read on for the details on what these laws are, and how they work in the context of a slip and fall case.
A statute of limitations is a state law that sets a deadline for filing a lawsuit. There are statutes of limitations for all types of legal claims, from assault and battery civil claims to zoning appeals. What's more, each state can have a different statute of limitations depending on the type of claim you want to file. Statutes of limitations can be as short as a few months and as long as 20 years.
A statute of limitations sets a very strict deadline. Generally, if you don’t file a lawsuit in a slip and fall case before the statute of limitations expires, your case will be over before it begins. If you file a lawsuit after the statute of limitations expires, the court is almost sure to dismiss the lawsuit quickly, and may even make you pay for the defendant’s costs for having to defend the case.
The statute of limitations in a slip and fall case usually begins running on the day that the you were injured. So, if you live in a state with a two year statute of limitations for personal injury cases, you would have two years from the day of the accident to get your lawsuit filed against the property owner or other defendant who you think is responsible for causing the slip and fall.
Most states have several provisions for extending the statute of limitations. Usually, the statute of limitations can be extended if the defendant left the state after committing the negligence, or if the plaintiff was a minor, was mentally ill, or was mentally disabled for a period of time after the accident.
Let’s look at a couple of examples of this. If the statute of limitations in your state is two years, and the defendant was outside the state for one year after your slip and fall, the statute of limitations in your case would be extended by another one year. However, be aware that circumstances like this can be very hard to prove, and don't count on this rule applying in your case until you have spoken with a lawyer in your state about your particular situation.
Far more common is the extension of the statute of limitations if the plaintiff was a minor. In most, but not all, states, the statute of limitations for a minor will not even start running until the minor turns 18. So, if your state has a three year statute of limitations in personal injury cases, a minor who had a slip and fall in that state would have until his/her 21st birthday to get a lawsuit filed.
The "discovery" rule is another common exception to the statute of limitations. In general, the discovery rule extends the statute of limitations in situations where the injured person did not know right away about either:
Let’s look at an example of how the discovery rule might extend the statute of limitations in a slip and fall case. Let’s say that your state has a two year statute of limitations for personal injury cases and a discovery rule that says that the statute of limitations does not begin running in a personal injury until the date that the plaintiff:
Let’s say that you fell on the defendant’s property, but got right up and didn’t think that you were injured. Three years later (i.e., one year after the statute of limitations expired), you begin having nagging pain in your back. You go to the doctor, and, after some x-rays, the doctor diagnoses you with a fractured vertebra that never healed and has caused you to develop painful spinal arthritis. The doctor also determined from the x-ray that the fracture was approximately three years old and that it definitely occurred from a traumatic event, not from wear and tell.
You tell the doctor that the only traumatic event that happened to you three years ago was that you took a fall on someone’s property. The doctor then tells you that, in his/her professional opinion, your spinal fracture more likely than not occurred when you fell.
In this situation, the statute of limitations may not begin running until the day the doctor told you that your injury more likely than not occurred when you fell (although the defendant might argue that you should have been on notice that an injury may have occurred, and you should have received a full medical examination soon after the incident).
Now that you have an understanding of how these laws work, check out our State-by-State Slip and Fall Statute of Limitations article collection.
For more in-depth information on resolving these kinds of cases, check out all the articles in our Slip and Fall and Premises Liability topic.