Time Limits to Bring a Case: The 'Statute of Limitations'
Statute of Limitations: Overview
Under a legal rule known as the "statute of limitations," any lawsuit arising from an accident or injury must be filed within a certain time limit (“limitations period") or the injured person's legal claim will be subject to forfeiture, barred, and their right to sue will be lost forever. The spirit of this rule is to incentivize potential claimants to bring forward their claims in a timely manner and before the evidence for a case becomes stale.
Every state has enacted its own statute of limitations, requiring any personal injury suit or cause of action be filed in court within a set time after the incident or injury. The specific limit prescribed by each state ranges from one year (e.g. in Kentucky and Tennessee) to six years (e.g. in Maine and North Dakota).
Different Time Limits for Different Types of Claims
In some states, the type of personal injury claim may also affect the time limit. For example, certain defamation tort cases and claims involving minors (persons under age 18) may be granted longer time limits, while medical malpractice statutes of limitations may grant shorter time limits. Similarly, some state legislatures have increased or altogether eliminated the period of limitation in certain sexual abuse, sexual assault, or sex offense contexts.
Typically, under the legal concept of tolling, the statute of limitations in a lawsuit for injuries to a minor does not begin to run until he or she reaches 18 years of age. For example, suppose Pat is injured in a car accident on his 17th birthday. In a state that has a two-year statute of limitations for personal injury lawsuits, Pat will have three years to file suit for injuries suffered in that accident.
Similarly, much like with civil actions and civil cases, in the criminal law context the statute of limitations for criminal offenses can vary as between misdemeanors, felonies, and other forms of criminal charges. Under criminal procedure, public officials such as law enforcement and prosecutorial authorities may have a limited single or multi-year period to bring legal action or legal proceedings against a defendant depending on the relevant criminal statutes of limitations.
The "Discovery of Harm" Rule
While a statute of limitations may declare that a personal injury lawsuit must be filed within a certain amount of time after an accident or injury, that period usually does not begin to run until the moment when the person filing suit knew (or should reasonably have known) that they had suffered harm, and the nature of that harm.
An example of this "discovery of harm" rule is a medical malpractice claim in which a surgeon mistakenly left a temporary bandage in the abdomen of a patient during a healthcare procedure, but the error was not discovered until years later, either during another surgical procedure or until an infection ensued. In such a case, the patient had no reason to know about the doctor's negligence until it came to light later, and this lack of knowledge could not be called unreasonable under the circumstances. Most likely, the statute of limitations would not begin to run until the day on which the first surgeon's mistake was "discovered" by the patient, rather than from the day on which the first surgeon actually made the mistake.
Remember that the delay in discovery must be one that is reasonable under the circumstances. Thus, if the patient in the above example were experiencing abdominal pain after the first surgery but refused to seek medical treatment for a number of years, their lawsuit may very well be barred by the statute of limitations. Also, the "discovery of harm" rule will almost never arise in the most common types of injury claims -- those after car accidents and slip and fall incidents. This is because such occurrences usually leave nothing to "discover" in terms of the source and nature of any harm suffered.
However, the discovery rule may apply in some wrongful death cases.
The Statute of Limitations in Your State
As mentioned above, every state has enacted its own statute of limitations, requiring any personal injury suit be filed in court within a set time after the incident or injury. The specific limit prescribed by each state is identified in the chart below, along with a link to the relevant state law.
(Note: State laws are frequently revised from year-to-year [and the data below may be outdated], so it is important to speak with an attorney to understand how your state's current laws will apply in your case, especially in areas as critical as the statute of limitations. Remember also that special time-limit rules exist for injury claims against the government.)
Have Specific Questions About Statute of Limitations? Ask a Lawyer
If you have sustained injuries as a result of another person's intentional actions or negligence, and have not exceeded the time limit, you may be able to recover damages. In some cases, the statute of limitations is not so clear. To learn more about the time limits to file a lawsuit, it's a good idea to discuss your case with a skilled personal injury attorney near you.
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