Beware of the statute of limitations for personal injury claims. Learn how to protect your right to pursue compensation.
In personal injury cases, the “Statute of Limitations” is the specific period of time you have to either settle your injury claim with the insurance company or file a personal injury lawsuit.
The statute usually begins to run on the date of the injury. The deadline can be extended, or “tolled” if the victim is a minor or legally incapacitated.
If you haven’t settled your claim or filed a lawsuit against the at-fault party before the statute runs out, you lose your right to seek compensation, no matter how badly you’re injured. The insurance company doesn’t have the legal authority to extend the deadline.
Each state has its own statute of limitations laws, and most states have different time limits for different case types, like injury claims, property damage claims, wrongful death, medical malpractice, and libel or slander. A few states have a deadline specifically for car accident claims.
There are separate, often shorter time limits for claims if your injuries were caused by a government employee or on public property.
Here’s where we unpack what the statute of limitations means for your injury claim, what to expect from the insurance company, and how you can protect your right to pursue compensation.
When Does the Personal Injury Statute of Limitations Begin?
For most general injury claims caused by events like a car accident, the statutory period begins on the date of the injury. Your state’s statute of limitations period might range from one to six years.
When you’re injured in an accident, write down the date it happened and look up the statutory deadline for the state where the accident occurred. The longer your claim goes on, the more important the limitations period becomes.
Missing the statute of limitations by even one day can end any possibility of compensation.
There are few exceptions to the statutory limitations periods that allow the deadline to be “tolled,” meaning delayed.
Discovery of Harm Exceptions
Most states allow an extension to the statute of limitations in circumstances where the statute may have expired before the injured person either:
- Discovered they were injured, or
- Discovered that another party’s negligence caused their injury
Delayed discovery of harm is a common reason for a filing extension when it comes to medical malpractice lawsuits or toxic exposure cases, like mesothelioma claims. A person exposed to asbestos may not discover they were harmed until years later when they are diagnosed with cancer.
Delayed discovery is like resetting the timer for filing an injury lawsuit. Typically, the exceptions allow the statutory period to begin from the date the injury was discovered, rather than the date the injury happened.
Example: Delayed Discovery of Harm
Jim had surgery for a ruptured appendix. He felt fine for more than two years, but then began feeling ill and having terrible belly pain.
Several months of testing revealed that Jim was suffering from a massive buildup of scar tissue around a surgical sponge that had been wrongly left behind in his belly. He had to undergo another painful surgery to remove the sponge and repair the internal damage it caused.
Although the two-year statute of limitations following the original surgery had expired, Jim’s attorney was able to file a medical malpractice claim on his behalf against the negligent surgeon because of the “discovery of harm” exception.
Extensions due to delayed discovery of harm are not automatic. Each case stands on its own merits, and the cause of the delay of discovery must be reasonable.
To convince a court to extend the limitations period, your attorney must prove you couldn’t have reasonably discovered evidence of your injuries until after the statute of limitations expired.
Other Exceptions to the Statute of Limitations
Most states have provisions to suspend the statute of limitations for injured individuals who are legally “incapacitated,” meaning they are unable to bring a cause of action against the at-fault party.
While each state is different, exceptions are commonly made for persons who are:
- Medically disabled
- Mentally disabled
- Clinically insane
- In bankruptcy proceedings
The statute begins to run again when the “incapacity” is no longer an issue. For example, the statute of limitations for a 16-year old injured in a motor vehicle accident may begin to run when the person reaches 18 years of age.
Statutes of Limitations by State
We’ve provided a state-by-state list of the statute of limitations for general injury claims. The applicable code for your injury depends on the state where your injury occurred, the nature of your injury claim, and factors that may be unique to your situation.
If you aren’t sure about the statutes and exceptions that apply to your circumstances, contact a personal injury attorney to discuss your case.
Protecting Your Right to Compensation
If someone’s negligence caused you to be injured, check the statute of limitations in the state where the incident occurred. Be sure to check the period which applies to your type of injury.
The statutes of limitations for all 50 states allow a sufficient amount of time to settle a minor personal injury claim with an insurance company. Most statutes give two to three years from the date of injury.
The injury claim and settlement process can take longer than expected. Sometimes, the statutory deadline is looming, and the injury victim hasn’t settled their claim.
Reasons for not timely settling a claim might include:
- The at-fault party left the accident scene without providing identification
- The at-fault party has no insurance
- The at-fault party agreed to pay monthly installments for medical bills but stopped paying
- The insurance company won’t make an acceptable settlement offer
“Tolling” the Statute
If the statute of limitations deadline is rapidly approaching, and you still haven’t settled your claim, your only option is to file a lawsuit before the deadline. Filing a lawsuit suspends the statute of limitations.
This indefinite suspension is referred to as “tolling” the statute. Once the statute of limitations is tolled, you’ll have plenty of time to continue pursuing a settlement without worrying about missing any deadlines.
Even though you’ve filed a legal action, your attorney can continue negotiations with the insurance company. Don’t be surprised if your claim settles before anyone appears in front of a judge.
Claims Adjusters and Statutes of Limitations
Insurance company claims adjusters are experts at dragging out personal injury claims for as long as possible when it suits their purpose. Their multi-billion-dollar employers don’t like giving their money away.
Delaying a settlement by even one month means the money continues to earn interest for the company. Moreover, if the claim isn’t settled before the statutory deadline and you didn’t know enough to file a lawsuit, the insurance company keeps all the money. You won’t get a dime.
You are responsible for knowing the statute of limitations for your injury claim. The insurance adjuster won’t alert you to the deadline and is not required to cooperate in settling your claim before the statute expires.
Keep in mind that a verbal settlement agreement is not enough to stop the statute of limitations. The adjuster has no legal authority to extend the statutory deadline.
You must have a signed settlement agreement or file a lawsuit before the statute runs out, or you’ll forfeit your right to compensation.
If the adjuster misrepresents the status of your claim with the intent of causing you to lose your right to compensation, you may have grounds for a bad-faith lawsuit against the insurance company.
Beware of Short Government Deadlines
Injury claims against government agencies and employees have special rules and time frames that differ from non-government claims.
The deadline for filing injury claims against federal entities is two years. Local and state government deadlines can range from 30 days to six months after you’re injured or discover your injury.
Claims against government agencies, including state or county-run schools or hospitals, can be very complicated.
In most cases, the injured party must first submit an administrative complaint to seek permission to file a lawsuit. If you use the wrong form, or fill out a form incorrectly, your claim will be rejected with no time left to start over.
An Attorney Can Protect Your Interests
Victims of severe or permanent injuries should always be represented by a personal injury attorney to get fair compensation for their losses. Injury attorneys do a lot for you.
Likewise, complicated claims against medical facilities, big corporations, or government agencies are best handled by a skilled attorney for the best possible outcome.
Even if you’ve been negotiating your injury claim on your own, you’ll want to consult an attorney if negotiations have stalled or the statute of limitations is imminent.
Don’t wait until the last minute to protect your legal rights. Most injury attorneys offer a free consultation. When you need help, it costs nothing to find out what an experienced personal injury lawyer can do for you.
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