Time Limits to Bring a Case: The "Statute of Limitations"
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 or the injured person's legal claim will be barred and his or her right to sue will be lost forever. 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 ranges from one year (in Kentucky and Tennessee) to six years (in Maine and North Dakota).
In some states, the type of personal injury claim may also affect the time limit. For example, certain defamation 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. Typically, the statute of limitations in a lawsuit for injuries to a minor does not begin to run until he or she reaches the age of 18. 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.
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 time 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, but the error was not discovered until years later, during another surgical procedure. In such a case, the patient had no reason to know of what happened, 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. So, if the patient in the above example was experiencing abdominal pain after the first surgery but refused to seek medical treatment for a number of years, his or her 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.
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, 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.)