If you’re thinking about filing a lawsuit over a dog bite or another injury caused by someone else’s dog, you need to understand the statute of limitations in your state, and how the law applies to your situation. This also goes for dog owners who might be liable for injuries caused by their dog.
First, a little background on the legalese: A statute of limitations is a law that sets a time limit on your right to file a lawsuit in civil court after you’ve suffered some kind of harm. The term is also used to refer to the limitation period itself. Every state has these kinds of laws on the books, and there are different deadlines depending on the kind of case you’re filing. (Get more details on how the statute of limitations works in personal injury cases.)
Each state’s statute of limitations for dog bite cases is generally the same as for most personal injury lawsuits filed in that state’s civil court system. These deadlines range from one to six years after the injury happened, although the typical time limit is two or three years. The time limit may pause (or "toll" in legalese) in rare circumstances that are dictated by state law. For instance, if the dog owner leaves the state for any period of time after the injury occurs, the statute of limitations might toll until the owner returns.
See the personal injury statute of limitations in your state (under the "Injury" column in the 50-state chart).
In some states, you can only sue if a dog actually bit you. But the majority of states allow lawsuits for most injuries caused by dogs, such as when a dog knocks someone over or chases a bicycle and causes an accident. Also, under “strict liability” dog bite laws, many states make owners liable for injuries their dogs caused (especially bites) even if the owner didn’t necessarily do anything wrong.
If you try to file your lawsuit after the deadline has passed, expect the dog owner to ask the court to dismiss the case. Unless an exception extends the deadline, the court will almost certainly grant the dismissal. If that happens, you’re left without a legal remedy for your injuries, lost income, and other damages. So even when you think you’ll be able to settle the case without filing a lawsuit (for instance, if you’re negotiating a settlement with the dog owner’s homeowners’ insurance carrier), make sure you leave yourself plenty of time in case you end up needing to file a suit.
If you’re worried that the filing deadline in your state is approaching, or if settlement talks have stalled, it may be time to contact an experienced personal injury lawyer to make sure your rights are protected. Even if the deadline has passed, a lawyer will know whether your situation qualifies for an exemption that would extend the statute of limitations.