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When Is It Too Late to Sue for Wrongful Death?

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on July 29, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Just about every criminal and civil case has a time limit -- a statute of limitations that creates a deadline for filing a case. But there's no statute of limitations for murder cases, so would the same be true for wrongful death claims?

While wrongful death claims are still subject to statutes of limitation, it turns out there are some unique considerations when it comes to applying time limits to wrongful death lawsuits.

The "Discovery of Harm" Rule

Each state may have different statute of limitations laws, but knowing how long you have to file a claim is only half the equation. Once you've figured out the time limits to bringing a case, the next step is determining when the clock starts ticking.

For most injury claims, the statute starts tolling when the person filing the suit knew, or should have known, that they suffered some harm or injury, and the nature of the harm or injury. And for most injuries, the clock starts ticking immediately -- it doesn't take long after a car accident or a slip-and-fall to know if you're hurt and why. But this isn't always the case for wrongful death claims.

Time Limits and Wrongful Death Claims

Courts in some states consider the right to bring a wrongful death as fundamental. As such, they have held that the limitation period for a wrongful death action doesn't begin to run until the death of the injured person.

On the other hand, some states apply the "discovery of harm" in wrongful death actions where the decedent knew or should have known of the cause of his illness or injury before his death. If so, the running of the limitations period in the wrongful death action would start before the decedent's death.

In addition, state rules regarding product liability could differ in wrongful death cases. While certain state laws will apply special limitations periods to product liability cases that begin running at the time of death, there are also states that prohibit product liability claims after a product has reached a certain age or been off the market for an extended period of time.

Some states may set their statute of limitations for wrongful death claims as short as one year. If you're considering a wrongful death claim you should speak to an experienced attorney as soon as possible.

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