North Carolina Personal Injury Laws and Statutes of Limitations

The basics of North Carolina personal injury law, including how long you have to file a lawsuit, where to file your case, the state's harsh contributory negligence rule, and more.

By , J.D. · University of San Francisco School of Law
Updated by Dan Ray, Attorney · University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Law

Odds are you're here because you were injured in North Carolina. Maybe you were hit by a careless driver, or hurt by a dangerous product or a negligent health care provider. Like most residents of the Tar Heel State, you probably don't know much about North Carolina's personal injury laws or procedures. We'll get you up to speed on the basics.

One of your first questions should be: How long do I have to file a lawsuit? We cover North Carolina's personal injury "statutes of limitations," laws that put a deadline on your time to sue. From there, we'll explain where your lawsuit will be filed, limits on the compensation (called "damages") you're allowed to collect, what happens if you share some of the blame for your injuries, and more.

North Carolina Statutes of Limitations for Personal Injury Lawsuits

North Carolina has several statutes of limitations that cover different personal injury (PI) lawsuits. Starting with the state's three-year general rule, we summarize the deadlines you're most likely to encounter.

General Rule: Three Years From the Date Your Injury Is Apparent

In most PI cases, North Carolina law gives you three years to file your lawsuit in court. (N.C. Stat. § 1-52(5) (2024).) This is the statute of limitations that usually applies to cases involving:

(Find out more about North Carolina premises liability laws.)

When the Statute Starts Running: North Carolina's "Discovery Rule"

North Carolina has adopted a version of the "discovery rule" to determine when the statute of limitations clock starts running. Specifically, N.C. Stat. § 1-52(16) (2024) says that unless a different rule says otherwise, your time to file a lawsuit runs from the earlier of the date your injury:

  • becomes apparent, or
  • should have been apparent to you, if you'd been reasonably careful to look for signs and symptoms.

So what does this mean? As a practical matter, in most cases the deadline clock will start on the date you're injured. Why? Because in most cases, you know right away you've been hurt—your injury is immediately apparent. Fall on an icy sidewalk and break your arm, for example, and the pain and other symptoms instantly let you know you've been injured.

Sometimes, though, your injury won't be apparent right away. This could happen, for instance, if you suffer long-term exposure to a dangerous chemical that makes you ill. Your symptoms might not appear for some time. Under those circumstances, the discovery rule might give you more time to file your case.

Here's the bottom line: When your injury isn't immediately apparent and you think you might benefit from the discovery rule, you'll need to rely on the advice of an experienced North Carolina lawyer. Expect the defendant (the party you're suing) to put up a real fight. And don't be surprised if the court is skeptical, too.

There's a Limit on Your Time to Discover an Injury

You don't have an unlimited amount of time to discover you've been hurt. North Carolina has other deadlines, called "statutes of repose," that put an absolute limit on your time to sue. The statute of repose runs whether you're aware of your injury or not.

In most cases, the latest the statute of limitations clock will start is 10 years after the last date the defendant did something to harm you. (N.C. Stat. § 1-52(16) (2024).) Some cases have longer or shorter statutes of repose. Your lawyer can tell you more.

Other North Carolina Personal Injury Statutes of Limitations

The three-year general rule doesn't apply in all personal injury cases. Here are some other statutes of limitations for specific kinds of lawsuits.

Intentionally-caused injuries. When someone deliberately or purposefully injures you, the law calls it an "intentional tort." N.C. Stat. § 1-52(19) (2024) puts a three-year deadline on these intentional torts:

Defamation of character. A false statement of fact about you that injures your reputation in the community is called "defamation." You don't have much time to file a defamation lawsuit—just one year from the date the defamatory statement is made. (N.C. Stat. § 1-54(3) (2024).)

(Learn more about North Carolina's defamation statute of limitations.)

Medical malpractice. In most cases, you have three years to file a medical malpractice lawsuit. The clock probably starts on the date of the malpractice. You might get more time, depending on the facts of your case. North Carolina's medical malpractice statute of repose is four years. (N.C. Stat. § 1-15(c) (2024).)

(Get more details on North Carolina's medical malpractice statute of limitations.)

Injuries resulting in death. When personal injuries cause death, the victim's estate has two years from the date of death to file a North Carolina wrongful death lawsuit. (N.C. Stat. § 1-53(4) (2024).)

Injuries caused by a government employee's negligence. If you suffer injury or property damage because of the negligent conduct of any employee or agent of the state—who was acting within the scope of their employment or duty at the time—your case needs to play by a unique set of rules set out in North Carolina's State Tort Claims Act.

You have three years to file a claim for injury or property damage, and two years to file a claim over wrongful death, but your case will be heard by the state's Industrial Commission, not the courts. Learn more about filing a claim under North Carolina's State Tort Claims Act.

Extending North Carolina's Personal Injury Statute of Limitations

North Carolina law recognizes a handful of situations when the statute of limitations filing deadline can be extended. Before you try to rely on one of these extensions, get advice from a North Carolina personal injury attorney.

Defendant is absent from North Carolina. The statute of limitations might not run for some period of time when the defendant:

  • lived out of state at the time you were injured, or
  • left North Carolina after causing your injury.

(N.C. Stat. § 1-21 (2024).)

Importantly, this extension only applies when, because of the defendant's absence, you're unable to file a personal injury lawsuit in North Carolina. Ask your lawyer if you'll be able to get "service of process" on the defendant while they're outside the state. If you can, you're not allowed to rely on this rule.

Injured person is legally disabled. Special rules apply when the person who's injured is legally disabled, meaning:

  • a minor (younger than 18 years old)
  • insane, or
  • incompetent.

The statute of limitations probably doesn't start running until the legal disability is "removed." (N.C. Stat. § 1-17(a) (2024).)

This rule doesn't apply when a child is injured by medical malpractice. In that event, you'll want legal advice from a local personal injury specialist.

I Missed North Carolina's Statute of Limitations Deadline. Now What?

Miss the filing deadline for your case and, barring an extension that gives you more time, your case is dead. Nothing you do will bring it back to life. Try to file a lawsuit in court and it will be dismissed as untimely. In the eyes of the law, you no longer have a viable legal claim.

Where Will My North Carolina Personal Injury Lawsuit Be Filed?

Unless you're planning to file a small claims case—where your damages can't exceed $5,000 to $10,000 (depending on the county)—you should have a lawyer prepare, file, and handle your personal injury lawsuit. Here's why.

Your case will be governed by (among other things) the North Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure and the Evidence Code. You probably aren't familiar with these rules which, at best, can be complicated and hard to understand. The time to learn them isn't while you're handling your own lawsuit. An experienced North Carolina attorney knows these rules and how they apply to your case. Without legal help on your side, you'll be at a serious disadvantage.

File in the Correct Court

Most personal injury cases are filed in the state's court of original, general jurisdiction, called the Superior Court. The Superior Court is authorized to hear lawsuits where the plaintiff (the party filing the lawsuit) asks for damages of more than $25,000. When the plaintiff wants damages of $25,000 or less, they can sue in the District Court.

Learn more about North Carolina lawsuits.

Choose the Proper Location

In addition to the correct court, your lawyer must also file your lawsuit in the proper location, or "venue." This will usually be the place where:

  • the defendant lives
  • when the defendant is a company, it has its place of business, or
  • your injury happened.

In some cases, venue will be proper in a different place. Again, your lawyer will be familiar with the venue rules.

What If I'm Partly to Blame for My Injury in North Carolina?

North Carolina is one of a tiny handful of states that follows an archaic, draconian rule called the "contributory negligence" rule. Here's how it works.

North Carolina's Contributory Negligence Rule

To win your North Carolina personal injury case, usually you have to prove that:

  • the defendant was negligent, or careless, and
  • the defendant's negligence was the cause of your injuries.

In almost every case, though, the defendant will point the finger back at you and claim that your own contributory negligence was partly the cause of your injuries. If this legal defense succeeds, it spells doom for your personal injury claim. Should you be found even the tiniest amount at fault—if just 1% of the total negligence is attributed to you—you get nothing, regardless of how serious, permanent, or disabling your injuries might be.

Does North Carolina's Contributory Negligence Rule Apply to Insurance Claims?

Technically, no. The contributory negligence rule applies in personal injury lawsuits that make it all the way to trial. There's no North Carolina law or rule that says the contributory negligence rule must be applied to insurance claims.

But in practice, the insurance adjuster who handles your injury claim is going to evaluate your case and conduct settlement negotiations with an eye toward what might happen in court. So if it's arguable that you bear at least some of the blame for your injuries, expect the insurance company to rely on the contributory negligence defense at the claim stage of your case, too.

If the insurance company raises contributory negligence as a defense to your claim, you should hire experienced legal counsel right away. Without that help, you're simply in over your head.

Are There Caps on Damages In North Carolina Personal Injury Cases?

Yes. North Carolina is one of many states that limits, or "caps," the personal injury damages you can collect when you win your case. Some states cap damages across the board, in all injury cases. North Carolina caps:

  • noneconomic damages in medical malpractice cases, and
  • punitive damages in all cases.

North Carolina's Medical Malpractice Damages Cap

Noneconomic damages are meant to compensate for injuries like pain and suffering, emotional distress, disability and disfigurement, loss of enjoyment of life, and more. With rare exceptions, as of January 1, 2023, these damages are capped at $656,730 in medical malpractice cases. This cap is adjusted for inflation every third year. (N.C. Stat. § 90-21.19 (2024).)

The next increase will happen effective January 1, 2026.

(Learn more about the North Carolina medical malpractice damages cap.)

North Carolina's Punitive Damages Cap

In all North Carolina personal injury cases, punitive damages can't exceed the greater of:

  • three times the amount of the plaintiff's actual ("compensatory") damages, or
  • $250,000.

Punitive damages are rarely awarded in personal injury cases, so this cap probably won't impact the value of your case.

Strict Liability for Dog Owners In North Carolina

In some states, dog owners are legally responsible for bite injuries only if their dog:

North Carolina takes a different approach. N.C. Stat. § 67-4.4 (2024) holds dog owners "strictly liable" for any personal injuries their dog causes. This means an owner is on the hook for damages even when the animal has no history of biting and the owner had no knowledge that it might be dangerous.

(Get the details about North Carolina's dog bite laws.)

Get Help With Your North Carolina Personal Injury Case

Personal injury law covers lots of legal ground—everything from assault and battery to defamation to medical malpractice and even wrongful death—and much more. The laws often are complex and difficult to understand. And a mistake on the law can prove costly. Miss the statute of limitations for filing your lawsuit, and you forever lose your legal right to compensation.

Don't take needless chances with your personal injury claim. Contact a North Carolina attorney who knows the state's laws and procedures and how they apply to your case. When you're ready to make the call, here's how you can find a personal injury lawyer near you.

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