For purposes of a personal injury lawsuit, a statute of limitations is a state law that sets a strictly-enforced limit on the amount of time that can pass between:
- the underlying harm (usually that means the date of the accident that caused the claimed injuries), and
- the filing of a lawsuit over the incident.
Consequences of Missing the Filing Deadline
If you fail to file a personal injury lawsuit before the filing deadline has passed, chances are your case will be dismissed -- no matter how badly you were hurt, and regardless of how clear the defendant’s liability may be -- unless there are legal grounds to extend or alter the deadline. That’s what makes understanding the statute of limitations deadline (and any applicable exceptions that might extend it) so crucial to the prospects of any personal injury lawsuit.
Learn more about missing the personal injury statute of limitations deadline.
Common Exceptions to the Statute of Limitations Deadline
Here's a look at a few common fact scenarios that might pause (“toll” in legalese) the running of the statute of limitations "clock" or otherwise extend the applicable deadline for filing a personal injury lawsuit. Check your state’s laws or talk to an experienced personal injury attorney for the details on the exceptions in place in your state:
- the injured person was a minor (under 18) at the time the injury occurred
- the injured person was legally incapacitated or had been declared legally incompetent at the time the injury occurred
- the defendant (the person allegedly responsible for the underlying accident) left the state, or took steps to conceal him/herself within the state, before the personal injury lawsuit could be filed, or
- the defendant has fraudulently or wrongfully attempted to conceal the occurrence of the injury or his or her role in causing the injury.
Different States Have Different Exceptions in Place
Just like the personal injury lawsuit filing deadline itself, every state has slightly different rules on the kinds of circumstances that could effectively extend the statute of limitations deadline.
Let’s look at some examples of situations in which the statute of limitations can be altered (or extended) in a few of the more populous states in the U.S. Keep in mind that many states have passed their own version of some or all of these example exceptions. Finally, where an example is listed here, that doesn’t mean other exceptions aren't possible in that state (there are nearly always more statutory exceptions on the books).
If the defendant (the person you’re trying to sue for your personal injury) leaves the state before you can file a lawsuit against him or her, that time of absence probably won’t be counted as part of the two-year statutory time limit for getting the personal injury lawsuit filed. (California Code of Civil Procedure section 351.)
If the injured person becomes subject to a legal disability any time after the right to file the personal injury lawsuit arises -- they are declared legally incompetent, for example -- the period of disability won't be counted as part of the two-year statute of limitations period for filing a personal injury lawsuit in Illinois. But if more than 10 years have passed and the legal disability still has not been removed, the right to file the lawsuit is lost. (735 Illinois Compiled Statutes section 5/13-211.)
If the defendant takes steps to fraudulently conceal the cause of the personal injury, the running of the three-year personal injury statute of limitations "clock" is paused until the injured person discovers the true cause. (Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 260 Section 12.)
If, before you file your personal injury lawsuit, the defendant (the person you’re trying to sue) leaves the state for a period of more than four months, or lives in the state under a false name, the time of his or her absence (or concealed identity) usually won't be counted as part of the three-year time period for filing the personal injury lawsuit. (New York Civil Practice Law & Rules section 207.)
If the defendant is imprisoned for any part of the two-year statute of limitations period for filing a personal injury lawsuit, the running of the statute of limitations "clock" is suspended for the length of the imprisonment. (Ohio Revised Code section 2305.15.)
If the injured person is "under a legal disability" (for example, he or she is under the age of 18 or has been declared "of unsound mind") at the time of the underlying accident, the time of the disability is not included in the two-year period of limitations. (But note that if a legal disability comes up after the accident has already occurred, that will not suspend the running of the "clock".) (Texas Civil Practice & Remedies Code section 16.001)