Under personal injury law, a statute of limitations is a legal time limit within which a person must file a lawsuit for a claim. This time limit is set by the law of the state in which the injury occurred, and it varies depending on the type of case.

The purpose of the statute of limitations is to ensure that lawsuits are filed within a reasonable time after an injury has occurred, preserving the integrity of evidence and ensuring that potential defendants are not exposed to claims indefinitely.

In the absence of a statute of limitations, a person may decide to file a lawsuit for a car accident that occurred 15 years ago. The plaintiff claims that the defendant’s negligent driving caused the accident and their subsequent injuries.

Over the course of those 15 years, the vehicles involved in the accident may have been sold or scrapped, the road conditions may have changed, and the witnesses to the accident may have relocated or forgotten the details of the incident.

As a result, the defendant would be at a significant disadvantage in defending themselves against the claim. The evidence that could have exonerated them, such as photographs of the scene, police reports, or witness statements, may no longer be available.

The plaintiff may also have difficulty proving their case, as their own recollection of the event may have faded, and medical records may no longer accurately reflect the severity of their injuries at the time.

In this scenario, the absence of a statute of limitations would permit the plaintiff to file a claim long after the incident occurred, making it difficult for both parties to present a fair and accurate case. This example demonstrates why a statute of limitations is crucial for ensuring that lawsuits are filed within a reasonable time, preserving the integrity of evidence, and protecting defendants from facing claims indefinitely.

Why Do States Have Statutes of Limitations?

States have statutes of limitations for several reasons:

Preservation of Evidence

As time passes, evidence may deteriorate, get lost, or become less reliable. By setting a time limit, the statute of limitations encourages prompt action, ensuring that evidence is still fresh and reliable when a case goes to trial.

  • Example: In a slip and fall case, a store may have had a security camera that captured the incident. If the plaintiff waits too long to file a claim, the store may have overwritten or discarded the footage, making it impossible to prove negligence on the store’s part. By filing the claim within the statute of limitations, the plaintiff ensures that the footage can be obtained and used as evidence.

Protecting Defendants

Statutes of limitations protect potential defendants from being exposed to lawsuits indefinitely. As time passes, memories may fade, and witnesses may become unavailable, which could put defendants at a disadvantage in defending themselves against old claims.

  • Example: Imagine a car accident that happened several years ago. If there were no statute of limitations, the defendant could be sued years after the incident, making it difficult for them to remember the details or gather evidence to support their case. A witness who saw the accident may have moved away or passed away, making it challenging to defend against the claim.

Encouraging Resolution

Statutes of limitations prompt plaintiffs to take action and seek resolution for their claims in a timely manner, rather than allowing disputes to drag on indefinitely.

  • Example: A person suffers a dog bite injury caused by their neighbor’s dog. Knowing that the statute of limitations will expire soon, the injured party may be more motivated to seek a resolution, such as negotiating a settlement or filing a lawsuit, instead of waiting indefinitely to address the issue.

Judicial Efficiency

By setting time limits on claims, statutes of limitations help to prevent courts from becoming overburdened with old cases that may be more difficult to adjudicate due to the passage of time and the potential deterioration of evidence.

  • Example: Without statutes of limitations, courts could become overwhelmed with cases that are difficult to adjudicate due to the passage of time. For instance, imagine a product liability case where a faulty product caused injury ten years ago. It might be challenging for the court to determine the facts of the case, as the product may no longer be in production, the manufacturer may have gone out of business, or key personnel may no longer be available to testify. By setting a statute of limitations, courts can focus on more recent cases with clearer evidence and facts.

When Does the Statute of Limitations Begin?

The statute of limitations usually begins when the injury occurs or when the plaintiff becomes aware of the injury (known as the “discovery rule”). The discovery rule allows the statute of limitations to be tolled or paused until the injured party discovers or reasonably should have discovered the harm caused by the defendant’s actions.

For instance, consider a medical malpractice case where a surgeon leaves a surgical instrument inside a patient. The patient may not experience any symptoms or complications for several months or even years. Without the discovery rule, the statute of limitations could expire before the patient becomes aware of the injury, preventing them from filing a lawsuit.

By allowing the statute of limitations to be tolled or paused until the injured party discovers or reasonably should have discovered the harm, the discovery rule balances the need for timely legal action with the realities of situations where injuries or damages may not be immediately apparent.

The typical length of the statute of limitations for personal injury cases, such as a negligence complaint related to a car accident, varies depending on the jurisdiction.

In many states, the statute of limitations for personal injury cases is between two and four years from the date of the injury or the date of discovery. However, it is crucial to check the specific statute of limitations in the state where the injury happened, as time limits can vary depending on the type of claim and the jurisdiction.

Where Can I Find the Statute of Limitations?

To find the statute of limitations for your specific case, follow these steps:

  1. Identify the jurisdiction: Determine the state or jurisdiction where the injury occurred, as the statute of limitations varies from state to state.
  2. Research state laws: Consult the state’s official legislative website or perform an online search to find the specific state laws and statutes that govern the statute of limitations for various types of cases, including personal injury.
  3. Legal resources: Utilize online legal resources, such as LegalMatch, which provides comprehensive information on state-specific statutes of limitations.
  4. Consult an attorney: If you are unsure about the statute of limitations in your case or have difficulty interpreting the law, consult a personal injury attorney who is knowledgeable about the laws in your jurisdiction.

Do I Need a Personal Injury Lawyer?

Hiring a personal injury lawyer can significantly increase your chances of receiving fair compensation for your injuries. Personal injury lawyers have the expertise to navigate complex legal processes, negotiate with insurance companies, and represent your best interests in court.

If you need a personal injury lawyer, use LegalMatch to find the right attorney for your case. LegalMatch is a free service that connects you with pre-screened, qualified attorneys in your area who specialize in personal injury law. Simply fill out a brief online form describing your case, and LegalMatch will match you with local attorneys who can help you understand the statute of limitations and guide you through the legal process.