Wisconsin Personal Injury Laws and Statutes of Limitations

Learn the basics about some of Wisconsin's personal injury laws, including how long you have to file suit, where to file your case, limits on the damages you can collect, and much more.

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

If you're a Wisconsin resident who's been injured by someone else's carelessness—maybe in a car accident, a slip-and-fall, or by a dangerous product—you might be thinking about filing a personal injury lawsuit or an insurance claim. Chances are, though, that you don't know much about the Wisconsin laws that will control your case. We'll fill you in on the basics.

We start with Wisconsin's personal injury lawsuit deadlines. From there, we'll explain where you file a lawsuit, what happens if you're partly to blame for an accident, limits on the compensation you can collect in some cases, and much more.

Wisconsin's Statutes of Limitations for Personal Injury Lawsuits

All states have laws called "statutes of limitations" that put deadlines on the time you have to file a lawsuit after you've been hurt. Miss the filing deadline and the consequences can be severe: You probably lose the right to sue, regardless of how severe or disabling your injuries might be.

Wisconsin's General Rule: Three Years

Wisconsin's general personal injury statute of limitations is located at Wis. Stat. § 893.54(1m) (2024). In most cases, you have three years to file a lawsuit. The three-year clock usually starts running on the date you're injured. When the injuries cause death, a wrongful death lawsuit must be filed within three years from the date of death, except in cases involving auto accidents (see below).

When you don't know right away that you've been hurt, Wisconsin's "discovery rule" might give you more time to file. Under the discovery rule, the limitation period starts to run when you discover—or, if you were being reasonably careful, you should have discovered—your injury. (Pritzlaff v. Archdiocese of Milwaukee, 194 Wis.2d 302, 315-16 (Wis. 1995).)

Cases With Different Statutes of Limitations

Under Wisconsin law, some personal injury cases have different statutes of limitations. When there's a more specific deadline, that's the one you must follow. Here are a few examples.

Auto accidents causing death. When an auto accident causes injuries that result in death, a wrongful death lawsuit must be filed within two years from the date of death. (Wis. Stat. § 893.54(2m) (2024).)

Medical malpractice. When you're injured by a Wisconsin health care provider's medical malpractice, you must file suit within the later of:

  • three years from the date of your injury, or
  • one year after you discover (or reasonably should have discovered) your injury, but not more than five years from the date of the malpractice.

(Wis. Stat. § 893.55(1m) (2024).)

Special rules apply when the provider conceals the malpractice from you, or when a foreign object is mistakenly left in your body. (See Wis. Stat. § 893.55(2)-(3) (2024).)

Intentional injuries. When someone intentionally harms you—what the law calls an "intentional tort"—you have three years to sue. (Wis. Stat. § 893.57 (2024).) This rule covers lawsuits for:

Can the Wisconsin Statute of Limitations Deadline Be Extended?

In some circumstances, Wisconsin law puts the statute of limitations clock on hold. For example, special rules apply when the plaintiff (the injured person) is legally disabled. (Wis. Stat. § 893.16(1) (2024).) A person who's legally disabled can't manage their own affairs without the help or supervision of a parent, guardian, or court. In Wisconsin, minors (those younger than 18) and people who are "mentally ill" are considered legally disabled.

Persons younger than 18. A minor is legally disabled until they reach the age of 18 or they're legally emancipated. Minors have two years from the earlier of those events (18th birthday or legal emancipation) to file a personal injury lawsuit. This exception doesn't apply to cases involving medical malpractice.

Persons who are mentally ill. Someone who's mentally ill has two years from the date their mental illness ends to file a personal injury suit. The longest that mental illness can extend the filing deadline is five years.

Get Help to Compute the Filing Deadline

Statutes of limitations are among the most complicated and difficult of all laws to understand and apply. If you file your case too late, your opponent (the "defendant") will ask the court to dismiss your lawsuit. Barring an exception that gives you more time, the court will have no choice but to grant that request.

Give serious thought to hiring an experienced lawyer to compute the statute of limitations deadline in your case. And don't delay, because time is one of the biggest enemies of a personal injury claim.

Where Do I File a Personal Injury Lawsuit In Wisconsin?

Most Wisconsin personal injury lawsuits are filed in the state's main trial court, called the circuit court. That's probably where you'll file your case. There's at least one circuit court in almost every Wisconsin county. Chances are that the proper circuit court (what the law calls "venue") will be the one in the county where:

  • the defendant lives (or if you're suing a business, the company has its principal place of business), or
  • the accident that injured you happened.

Your lawyer can fill you in on the filing details.

One final note. If your injuries are very minor and you're certain that the dollar value of all your accident-related losses ("damages") won't be more than $5,000, Wisconsin small claims court might be a good option.

What If I'm Partly to Blame for the Accident?

In most Wisconsin personal injury cases, to win damages you must prove that the defendant was negligent—acted carelessly under the circumstances. Many times, the defendant will argue that you, too, were negligent, and that your negligence should reduce or eliminate the damages you can collect.

This legal defense, called "comparative negligence," is available in Wisconsin.

Wisconsin's Modified Comparative Negligence Rule

Wisconsin follows a "modified comparative negligence" rule. Under this rule, you can collect some damages as long as your percentage share of the total negligence isn't 51% or more. When your share of the blame is less than 51%, it simply reduces the damages you can collect by that amount. But if you're found 51% or more to blame, you can't collect any damages. (Wis. Stat. § 895.045(1) (2024).)

Example: Wisconsin's Comparative Negligence Rule

You're grocery shopping one afternoon. As you walk down an aisle pushing a cart, you don't notice a broken floor tile in your path. You trip on the tile, fall, and break your ankle. Once you've recovered, you sue the store for negligence. The store answers that you were negligent too, because you didn't watch where you were going.

After a jury trial, the jurors decide that the store was 80% negligent, but they agree that the remaining 20% of the negligence is yours. They assess your total damages at $70,000. How much can you collect? Because you were 20% negligent, you can recover 80% of your damages: $70,000 x 80% = $56,000. The store's insurance company will write you a check for that amount.

How much would you get if the jury decided you were 51% (or more) to blame? Under Wisconsin's modified comparative negligence rule, you'd get nothing.

Are There Caps on Personal Injury Damages in Wisconsin?

Many states have enacted laws that place a limit (or "cap") on the personal injury damages a winning plaintiff can collect. Most often, the caps apply to "noneconomic" damages, meaning amounts paid for injuries like pain and suffering, emotional distress, and loss of enjoyment of life.

Some states apply caps across the board, in all personal injury claims. Others only cap damages in specific cases. Medical malpractice lawsuits are a favorite target.

Here are Wisconsin's damage caps.

  • Medical malpractice cases. In Wisconsin medical malpractice cases, noneconomic damages are capped at $750,000. (Wis. Stat. § 893.55(4)(d)(1) (2024).)
  • Wrongful death cases. Damages for "loss of society and companionship" in a wrongful death case can't exceed $500,000 for the death of a minor or $350,000 for the death of an adult. (Wis. Stat. § 895.04(4) (2024).)
  • Suits against the government. In a lawsuit against state employees, officers, and agents, damages for injury or death can't exceed $250,000. (Wis. Stat. § 893.82(6) (2024).) If you're suing a Wisconsin political subdivision or its officers, employees, or agents, your recovery is limited to $50,000. (Wis. Stat. § 893.80(3) (2024).)
  • All cases. Punitive damages—damages meant to punish a wrongdoer—are limited to the greater of $200,000 or two times the compensatory damages awarded to the plaintiff. Punitive damages are rare in personal injury cases, so it's unlikely that this cap will impact the value of your case.

Can I Make an Injury Claim Against the Government in Wisconsin?

In a word: Yes. But suing the state or a local government (or their employees) isn't like suing a private person or business. Before you're allowed to sue, you must give the government written notice of your claim. Think about getting help from an experienced government claims attorney to file the required notice and, if necessary, to sue on your behalf.

Claims Against State Officers and Employees

For claims against Wisconsin employees, officers, or agents, you must notify the Wisconsin Attorney General, in writing, within 120 days after the event that caused the injury or death. (Wis. Stat. § 893.82(3) (2024).) You can use the online claim form available through the Attorney General's office.

Claims Against Local Governments

To make a claim against a Wisconsin political subdivision or its officers, employees, or agents, you must:

  • serve them with written notice of the "circumstances of the claim" within 120 days after the injury or death, and
  • serve the clerk or secretary of the government body with an "itemized statement of the relief" you're seeking.

(Wis. Stat. § 893.80(1d)(a)-(b) (2024).)

If the government fails to respond within 120 days after notice, your claim is treated as disallowed. Once your claim is disallowed, you have just six months to file a lawsuit in court. (Wis. Stat. § 893.80(1g) (2024).)

Check the website of the political subdivision you plan to sue. You might find helpful information and claim forms. For example, the City of Madison has a claims page that includes a link to an online claim form.

Get Help With Your Personal Injury Case

We've covered some of the basic Wisconsin personal injury laws here. If you've been injured and you're thinking about bringing an insurance claim or a lawsuit, there's much more you need to know. It's easy to make a mistake that might prove very costly. Rest assured that your opponent will be represented by experienced legal counsel. To make it a fair fight, you should be, too.

When you're ready to move forward with your case, here's how to find a personal injury lawyer near you.

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