Personal Injury

What is the Statute of Limitations in a Personal Injury Case?

By David Goguen, J.D., University of San Francisco School of Law
Failure to comply with the statute of limitations can be fatal to your personal injury lawsuit, so it's crucial to understand this state law as it applies to your case.

If you’re considering making a personal injury claim after any kind of accident, you might have heard about a rule known as the “statute of limitations.” Maybe you’ve even heard that compliance with this rule is crucial to your claim. But what is a statute of limitations, and how do these rules apply to a personal injury case? Perhaps most importantly, what are the consequences of failing to comply with the statute of limitations? Read on for the answers.

What is a Statute of Limitations?

Simply put, a statute of limitations is a state law that sets a strict deadline on a prospective plaintiff’s right to file a lawsuit in court. If you wait too long to get your civil case started, you effectively lose the right to have the court hear your case at all. In the context of an injury case, that means getting the personal injury complaint filed in civil court. Learn more about how and where to file a personal injury lawsuit.

Different States Follow Different Deadlines

Every state has spelled out statutes of limitations in their state codes, with different deadlines for different kinds of civil cases.

In most states, language in the code of laws dictates a specific deadline for personal injury lawsuits, although that language can vary from state to state, just as the specific filing deadline for personal injury lawsuits also varies.

For example, the applicable state law might set a specific deadline for:

  • "an action for...injury to, or for the death of, an individual caused by the wrongful act or neglect of another"(California)
  • "an action founded on negligence" (Florida), or
  • "an action for bodily injury" (Ohio).

But whatever the wording, these filing deadlines apply to all kinds of personal injury claims -- whether arising from car accidents, slip and fall incidents, dog bites, or any other accident or mishap.

Let’s take a quick look at the different statutes of limitations for personal injury lawsuits in several of the more populous U.S. states:

  • California: Two years (California Code of Civil Procedure section 335.1)
  • Florida: Four years (Florida Statutes section 95.11)
  • New York: Three years (New York Civil Practice Law & Rules section 214)
  • Ohio: Two years (Ohio Revised Code section 2305.10)
  • Texas: Two years (Texas Civil Practice & Remedies Code section 16.003)

Failure to Comply With the Statute of Limitations Can Spell Doom for Your Case

Whether it’s a personal injury lawsuit or any other kind of civil case, if you fail to comply with the statute of limitations -- you file your lawsuit after the filing deadline has passed, in other words -- chances are your case will be dismissed. Specifically, the defendant (the person or business you’re trying to sue) will file a motion asking the court to throw out your case (pointing out that the statute of limitations deadline has passed), and unless there are legal grounds to extend or alter the deadline (more on these exceptions in the next section) the court is certain to grant the dismissal.

If your personal injury lawsuit is dismissed for failure to comply with the statute of limitations, that’s the end of your case. No matter how significant your damages (compensable losses), and regardless of how clear the defendant’s negligence might be, you’ll be left without a legal remedy for your injuries and other losses stemming from the accident. That’s what makes understanding and complying with the statute of limitations so crucial to the prospects of any personal injury lawsuit.

Even if you’re confident that your personal injury case will be resolved through the insurance claim process, or that it will otherwise settle out of court, you want to leave yourself plenty of time to file a lawsuit in case you need to -- at the very least, preserving the court option will give you more leverage during settlement talks.

Learn more about what happens if you miss the statute of limitations deadline in a personal injury case.

"Tolling" and Extending the Filing Deadline

Every state has passed laws that essentially carve out exceptions to the statute of limitations filing deadline, by defining circumstances that could pause (or "toll" in legalese) the running of the statute of limitations "clock." Of course, the specifics of these exceptions vary, so it’s important to talk to an experienced personal injury lawyer near you if you have questions about the law in your state. But here’s a look at a few common scenarios that could alter or extend the filing deadline:

  • the injured person is under the age of 18
  • the injured person has been declared mentally incompetent, insane, or "of unsound mind"
  • the injured person is incarcerated or is on active military duty during some portion of the applicable period of limitations
  • the defendant (the person who allegedly caused the injury) is absent from the state, or has taken steps to conceal him/herself within the state, or
  • the defendant has fraudulently or wrongfully attempted to conceal the occurrence of the injury or his or her role in causing the injury.

Next Steps

Since the statute of limitations is such an important procedural rule, it's critical to make sure that you understand and comply with the deadline in your state. Especially if you were injured some time ago, now is the time to discuss your situation with an experienced attorney who can make sure you keep all your options open. Learn more about hiring and working with a personal injury lawyer.

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