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Personal injury lawsuits - statute of limitations

One issue that is crucial to understand in a personal injury lawsuit is the amount of time you have to file a lawsuit after you have been injured. Every State imposes a time limit. This is generally called the ‘Statute of Limitations’.

In many States, an injured party has two years from the date of the injury to file a lawsuit in the state’s civil court system. It’s important to understand and adhere to this rule. If you don’t get your lawsuit filed before this window closes, the court system will likely refuse to hear your case at any time in the future, and your right to compensation will be lost forever.  However, there are some important exceptions as outlined below.

First, 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.

A classic example of this rule is a medical malpractice claim in which a surgeon mistakenly leaves a medical tool in the abdomen of a patient, but the error is not discovered until years later. 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.

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 might be barred by the statute of limitations.

These "discovery of harm" cases almost never involve a car accident because a car accident usually leaves nothing to "discover" in terms of the source and nature of any harm suffered.

Second, not every State has a two year window. This period can range from one year to up to six years.

Third, it is critical to understand that period can change depending on the type of case. In other words, 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.

Fourth, it’s critical to understand that this period can be changed depending on who caused your injury. For example, if your injury case involves the potential liability of a government entity or employee you usually cannot simply file a lawsuit against the government.  Instead, you need to file a formal claim with the governmental unit that you believe may be responsible for causing your injury. This time frame is usually much shorter than 2 years, with 6 months being a common time limit in many States.

The attorneys at TheLawFirm.com do not recommend waiting the full period of the Statute. Occasionally we are approached by injured people with what appears to be a legitimate claim but who are right on the cusp of the statute. However, usually because they have been negotiating the matter with the insurance company, they haven’t filed a complaint. We usually have to decline those cases, despite the merit of the case, simply because the Plaintiff is asking us to file a complaint within a few days, or even hours.

TheLawFirm.com suggests that you contact an attorney as soon as possible after an accident. The statute of limitations is not something that can be extended or missed. 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.

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