Massachusetts Personal Injury Laws and Statutes of Limitations

Learn about Missouri personal injury law, including how long you have to file suit, where your case will be filed, what happens if you're partly to blame for your injuries, and more.

By , J.D. University of San Francisco School of Law
Updated by Charles Crain, Attorney UC Berkeley School of Law
Updated 4/26/2024

If someone else's intentional or negligent action causes you injury in Massachusetts, it's important to understand the different state laws that could affect any personal injury case you decide to bring. That includes deadlines for filing different kinds of personal injury lawsuits, limits on how much money you can receive in court, and special rules that apply to lawsuits over certain kinds of harm, like dog bites and car accident injuries.

Massachusetts's Deadlines for Filing a Personal Injury Lawsuit

A statute of limitations is a law that sets a deadline for filing a civil case against a person, business, or other organization. Each state sets its own deadlines, and a state can have different statutes of limitations for different kinds of lawsuits.

Massachusetts gives you three years to file most personal injury lawsuits in the state's court system, including those involving car accidents, slip and fall incidents, and other mishaps caused by someone else's negligence. (Mass. Gen. Laws Ch. 260, section 2A (2023).)

But Massachusetts lawmakers have also given specific kinds of injury cases their own dedicated statutes of limitations, including:

What Happens If I Miss the Deadline Set by Massachusetts's Statute of Limitations?

If you don't get your personal injury lawsuit filed within the three-year window, you'll lose your legal right to seek compensation ("damages", in legal terms) from the person who harmed you. Your case will be thrown out even if you have a good argument that the person you want to sue is legally responsible for your injuries, and even if that person engaged in particularly careless behavior.

This may seem unfair. But statutes of limitations are intended to make sure that people who've been involved in accidents, or threatened with lawsuits, can stop worrying about being sued once a certain amount of time has passed.

It's also important to keep in mind that, even without a statute of limitations to worry about, a plaintiff is almost always better off moving quickly to seek compensation if they think they've been hurt by someone else's negligence. If you wait too long, you risk making it more difficult to find witnesses to support your case, and to gather other helpful evidence.

Even if you don't think you want to sue--for example, if you just want to negotiate a fair insurance settlement--you should keep things moving along and give yourself plenty of time to file a lawsuit if you have to. It will then be clear to the other side that you're serious about your case. You'll also have more leverage in negotiations, because the other side will know that you might take them to court if there's no agreement.

When Massachusetts Allows Extensions of its Statute of Limitations

There are rare exceptions to Massachusetts's three-year filing deadline for personal injury lawsuits.

One of these exceptions is the so-called "discovery rule." Under this rule, the clock starts ticking on the statute of limitations deadline when a plaintiff discovers (or reasonably should have discovered) that they were harmed by the defendant's negligence. The discovery rule would be important, for example, in a case where someone was exposed to toxic chemicals at their job, but only learned about it when they began suffering health problems years later.

Other exceptions include cases involving:

  • Minors and the mentally ill. If someone is harmed when they're under 18, or while they're incapacitated by a mental illness, the statute of limitations deadline begins to run when they gain (or regain) their ability to assert their legal interests.
  • Defendants who are not in Massachusetts. If you're harmed by someone while they're living outside of Massachusetts, your clock for filing a lawsuit doesn't start ticking until they come into the state. Similarly, if someone leaves the state after they harm you, but before you can file your case, the clock is stopped until they return to Massachusetts.
  • Fraudulent concealment. This exception is similar to the discovery rule. It applies to situations where the potential defendant takes steps to keep the injured person from understanding their right to file a lawsuit. The time during which this fraudulent concealment was ongoing probably won't be counted as part of the three-year filing period.

(Khatchatourian v. Encompass Ins. Co. of Massachusetts, 78 Mass. App. Ct. 53, 57 (2010); (Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 260, § 7 (2023); (Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 260, § 9 (2023); (Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 260, § 12 (2023).)

Filing a Personal Injury Lawsuit in Massachusetts

A lawsuit begins when the plaintiff files a complaint with a court. The complaint:

  • identifies the plaintiff and the defendant
  • states the grounds for the plaintiff's claim against the defendant, and
  • asks for a specific legal remedy for your injuries and related losses.

Next, the plaintiff must make sure the defendant is served with a summons and a copy of the complaint.

Deciding Where to File Your Case

A Massachusetts plaintiff must decide both where in the state to file their personal injury case, and which court should hear the case.

Court location. In general, civil cases are filed in the court closest to where the parties live, or closest to where the plaintiff says they were harmed. (Things can get more complicated if the parties live far from one another--for example, if the plaintiff and defendant live in different states, the case may end up in federal court.)

Superior or District court. The amount of damages a plaintiff is seeking determines which type of Massachusetts court will hear their case. The state's trial courts are divided between:

  • Superior Court. If you are seeking more than $50,000 in damages, you should file your case in Massachusetts Superior Court.
  • District Court. If you are seeking less than $50,000 in damages, you should file your case in Massachusetts District Court. These courts include Massachusetts's small claims courts. If you're seeking $7,000 or less in damages it may make sense to file your case in small claims court. The rules of small claims court make it a less complicated and expensive option for people who choose to represent themselves.

Working With an Attorney

If your claim is relatively straightforward, and you haven't suffered serious injuries or financial losses, it could make sense to represent yourself in court. Massachusetts's courts have advice for people who want to handle their case without an attorney. But courts have complicated rules, and it can be difficult for someone with no experience to gather evidence and prove their case. So if there's a lot at stake you're probably going to be better off working with a lawyer.

What Happens If You're Partially Responsible for Your Own Injuries

Sometimes a judge or jury in a personal injury case will find that the defendant is at least partially to at fault for their own injuries. In these situations, Massachusetts uses a rule called "modified comparative fault." Under this rule:

  • If a plaintiff shares up to 50% of the blame for their injuries, their damages are reduced by a corresponding percentage.
  • If a plaintiff is more than 50% to blame, they cannot recover any damages at all from the defendant.

(Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 231, § 85 (2023).)

The Impact of Massachusetts's Comparative Fault Rule

Suppose you're shopping in a grocery store when you trip and fall on a broken floor tile. You didn't see the tile because you were looking at your phone. After a civil trial, the jury determines that your total damages equal $30,000, but that you are 20% at fault for the accident. The grocery store's share of fault is 80%. Under Massachusetts's modified comparative fault rule:

  • Your $30,000 total damages award will be reduced by 20%, or $6,000.
  • The grocery store is legally responsible for the remaining 80% ($24,000) of your damages.

On the other hand, if the jury had decided that you were 51% responsible for the accident, you would have received no compensation from the grocery store.

Keep in mind that this rule only applies to how damages are calculated in personal injury cases that make it all the way to a trial and a verdict. It doesn't apply, for example, to insurance settlements, or to negotiated lawsuit settlements.

But an injured person's chances of prevailing in court, and the amount of damages they could realistically receive, play a huge role in determining the amount of any negotiated settlement. So it's important to understand, from the start, how your own role in an accident could affect the compensation you'll receive.

Massachusetts Is a "No-Fault" Car Insurance State

Massachusetts is a "no-fault" state when it comes to car insurance and the injury claim process after an accident. In a no-fault system, a car accident victim usually can't pursue a claim against another party unless their case meets certain thresholds. Under Massachusetts's no-fault car insurance rules, you can't file a personal injury lawsuit unless:

  • you have at least $2,000 in reasonable medical expenses, or
  • you have suffered certain extremely serious or permanent injuries.

Because of these rules, if you're injured in a car accident in Massachusetts you'll turn first (and often exclusively) to your own car insurance coverage to get compensation for certain crash-related losses. The system works this way even if it's clear that the other driver caused your accident.

Massachusetts Dog Owners' Liability for Bites and Other Injuries

Like many states, Massachusetts has special rules for deciding when dog owners are responsible for injuries caused by their pets. Massachusetts imposes "strict liability" on dog owners. Under this strict liability rule, a plaintiff doesn't have to prove that their injuries were the result of the owner's negligence. They also don't have to prove that the owner knew their pet might be dangerous.

Instead, the owner is assumed to be liable for injuries caused by their pet, regardless of what they knew or what they did to try to prevent the incident. The owner can defend themselves, though, by arguing that the victim was trespassing, or brought on the attack by teasing or provoking the dog.

When Massachusetts Limits a Plaintiff's Potential Compensation

A person's damages in a personal injury case can include both:

  • Economic losses. These are losses that can be relatively easily quantified in dollars--for example, the cost of medical bills, or the income someone loses because their injuries prevent them from working.
  • Non-economic losses. These include less tangible harms like a person's pain and suffering. These damages are more difficult to boil down to a specific amount of money.

In most personal injury cases, Massachusetts does not place a specific limit on the amount of money a plaintiff can receive as compensation for their economic and non-economic damages. (This doesn't mean a judge or jury is free to award any amount of money they want. Plaintiffs must provide evidence of their economic damages, and there are guidelines for how non-economic damages should be calculated.)

But, like many states, Massachusetts has different rules for damages in medical malpractice cases. Under state law, plaintiffs in these cases cannot receive more than $500,000 as compensation for non-economic damages. To receive a higher award for their pain and suffering, a plaintiff in a Massachusetts medical malpractice case must be able to show that they've suffered:

  • substantial or permanent loss or impairment of a bodily function
  • substantial disfigurement, or
  • other special harm that would make application of the cap unjust or unfair.

(Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 231, § 60H (2023).)

Next Steps in Your Massachusetts Personal Injury Case

As we've seen, Massachusetts's rules for personal injury cases can be complicated. It sometimes makes sense to represent yourself in court, especially if you aren't badly hurt and there's a relatively small amount of money at stake. But if you've been seriously injured, or aren't sure how the law applies to your situation, you will almost certainly benefit from speaking with an attorney. A Massachusetts lawyer with experience handling personal injury lawsuits should be able to advise you on how to proceed. A good attorney will also be able to represent your interests--both in negotiations and, if necessary, in court.

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