After any kind of accident where someone else's negligence caused you harm, there's a good chance you might have more than one option for getting compensation for your losses. If insurance coverage (yours or someone else's) applies to the accident, you might file an insurance claim. If you're not getting a fair response from the insurer (or if there's no applicable policy in place), you might need to take the matter to court by filing a personal injury lawsuit. In either situation, time is of the essence. (Learn more about injury-related insurance claims versus personal injury lawsuits.)
File Your Insurance Claim ASAP
For an injury-related insurance claim, whether you are filing through your own insurance company or the insurance company of the other party (meaning the other driver in a car accident scenario, or the homeowner in a slip and fall), there is usually no set time limit within which you must start the claim process. But it's always a good idea to notify the insurance company of any incident that could trigger coverage under the policy, and if it's your own insurer, you may be under a contractual obligation to report the incident.
For the claim itself, you want to get the process started within a reasonable time (let's say within one month of the accident), otherwise the insurance company could argue that you couldn't have been hurt all that badly. You don't want to give the claims adjuster any reason to be skeptical about your claim. (Learn more about third-party insurance claims in the context of a car accident.)
File Your Lawsuit According to the Statute of Limitations Deadline
For a personal injury lawsuit -- which means you are asking the local branch of your state's civil court system to find the other party liable for your injuries, and to award you compensation, or "damages" in legalese -- there are strict time limits that you must abide by.
These lawsuit time limits are laid out in state laws called statutes of limitations. There are different time limits depending on what kind of case you are bringing. Every state has its own deadlines for filing a lawsuit over a personal injury (we'll get into more detail below) but most give you somewhere between two years and five years to get the case started in the court system. That means filing the personal injury complaint (soon after which you'll serve the defendant).
So, what happens if you don't get your lawsuit filed before the time window set out in the statute of limitations closes? The person you're trying to sue will almost certainly file a motion to dismiss the claim, pointing out to the court that the filing deadline has passed, and the court is almost certain to dismiss your lawsuit. If that happens, you will have lost your right to hold the other party liable for your injuries. (Learn more about missing the statute of limitations deadline in a personal injury case.
There are a few situations that might pause or “toll” the running of the statute of limitations clock, meaning you would have more time to file the lawsuit. For example, if you were under the age of 18 when your right to file the lawsuit arose, that could mean the clock will not start running until you reach 18. And if you did not discover the harm right away, and could not reasonably have been excepted to discover it under the circumstances, the clock may not start running until you actually did (or should have) discovered it.
Again, every state's statute of limitations is a little different, in terms of both the filing deadline and the situations that might extend that deadline. Here's a quick look at the statute of limitations deadline for personal injury cases in 10 of the most populous states in the U.S.:
- California: 2 years
- Florida: 4 years
- Georgia: 2 years
- Illinois: 2 years
- Massachusetts: 3 years
- Michigan: 3 years
- Missouri: 5 years
- New Jersey: 2 years
- New York: 3 years
- Texas: 2 years
For a state-by-state breakdown of the statute of limitations deadline in every state in the U.S. (including a citation to the specific statute in each state's code), check out Nolo's 50-state statute of limitations chart.