What is the Personal Injury Statute of Limitations in North Carolina?

How the North Carolina personal injury statute of limitations works, and why the deadline set by this state law can make or break your case.

Whether your injuries stem from a slip and fall, a traffic accident, or any other incident where someone else's conduct caused you harm, you might be thinking about filing a personal injury lawsuit in North Carolina's civil courts. If so, it's crucial to comply with the statute of limitations for these types of cases. (For those who may not be fluent in "legalese," a statute of limitations is a law that puts a time limit on your right to file a lawsuit in court.)

In this article, we'll cover the details of North Carolina's personal injury statute of limitations, explain why the deadline is so important, and summarize a few instances when the filing period might be extended.

Three Years is the Standard Time Limit for North Carolina Personal Injury Lawsuits

The North Carolina personal injury statute of limitations is spelled out at North Carolina General Statutes section 1-52, which says any lawsuit seeking a legal remedy for "injury to the person" must be filed within three years.

So if, after another person's careless or intentional act causes you injury, you want to ask North Carolina's courts for a civil remedy (damages) for your losses, you have three years to get the initial documentation (the "complaint" and other required paperwork) filed in court.

When does the three-year "clock" start ticking? Section 1-52 says it's the day on which "bodily harm to the claimant or physical damage to his property becomes apparent or ought reasonably to have become apparent to the claimant, whichever event first occurs." Since after most accidents, it's not difficult to ascertain an injury (or the source of that injury), the three-year "clock" typically starts on the date of the underlying accident.

North Carolina's three-year deadline applies to almost all conceivable types of personal injury lawsuits, whether the case is driven by the liability principle of "negligence" (which applies to most accidents) or intentional tort (which applies to civil assault and battery and other purposeful conduct).

What If You Miss the Filing Deadline?

If more than three years have passed since the underlying accident, but you try to file your personal injury lawsuit anyway, the defendant (the person you're trying to sue) will almost certainly file a "motion to dismiss" and point this fact out to the court. And unless a rare exception entitles you to extra time (more details on these exceptions later), the court will summarily dismiss your case. Once that happens, you’ve lost your right to ask a court to award you damages for your injuries, no matter how significant they might be, and no matter how obvious the defendant’s liability.

North Carolina's personal injury statute of limitations is obviously pivotal if you want to take your injury case to court via a formal lawsuit, but the filing deadline set by this law is also crucial to your position in personal injury settlement negotiations with the defendant and his or her insurance company. If the other side knows that the three-year deadline has passed, you'll have lost all your negotiating leverage, making "I'll see you in court" the very definition of an empty threat.

Exceptions to the North Carolina Personal Injury Statute of Limitations

North Carolina has identified a number of different scenarios that might delay the running of the statute of limitations "clock," or pause the clock after it has started to run, effectively extending the three-year filing deadline. Here are some examples of circumstances that are likely to modify the standard timeline:

  • If the injured person is considered to be under a legal disability at the time of the underlying accident -- meaning he or she is a minor under the age of 18, or is considered "insane" or "incompetent" according to North Carolina law -- then the three-year "clock" for filing the personal injury lawsuit probably won't begin to run until the legal disability is "lifted", meaning the person turns 18, or is deemed sane or competent. (North Carolina General Statutes section 1-17.)
  • If, at some point after the underlying accident, and before the lawsuit can be filed, the person who allegedly caused the plaintiff's injuries (the defendant) "departs from and resides out of" the state of North Carolina, or if he or she "remains continuously absent" from the state for a period of one year or more, the period of absence likely won't be counted as part of the three years. (North Carolina General Statutes section 1-21.)

If you have questions about how the North Carolina statute of limitations applies to your personal injury case -- especially if the deadline is fast-approaching or has already passed -- it may be time to discuss your situation with an experienced North Carolina personal injury attorney.

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