In most personal injury cases, if you miss the statute of limitations filing deadline, your case will be over before it can even begin. But in some rare situations, the "clock" can be paused, effectively extending the deadline. Read on for the details.
What is the Statute of Limitations?
Let's take a step back and explain that a statute of limitations is a law that puts a very strict deadline on your right to file your personal injury lawsuit. The deadline differs from state to state. In most states, it ranges from one year to six years, with the clock starting to run on the date of the injury.
Here's a look at the statutory time limits for filing a personal injury lawsuit in some of the more populous states:
- California: 2 years
- Florida: 4 years
- Georgia: 2 years
- Illinois: 2 years
- Massachusetts: 3 years
- Minnesota: 2 years
- Missouri: 5 years
- New York: 3 years
- Ohio: 2 years
- Texas: 2 years
If You Miss the Filing Deadline
Usually, if the statute of limitations deadline has passed, and you try to file your personal injury lawsuit anyway, the defendant (the person you're trying to sue) will file a motion to dismiss the lawsuit (on the grounds that the statute of limitations has expired) and the court will grant the motion, effectively ending your case and leaving you without a legal remedy for your injuries and other losses. That is, unless an exception applies to extend the deadline. That's why it's crucial to either settle your personal injury case or get your lawsuit filed (if only to preserve your rights) before the deadline passes.
Common Exceptions to the Running of the Statute of Limitations
There are a few exceptions that almost every state allows when it comes to the statute of limitations in civil lawsuits. The most common of these involve the "discovery" rule, the defendant’s absence from the state, and the plaintiff’s age and/or disability.
The Discovery Rule
The discovery rule can be phrased differently from state to state, but, in general, it will extend the statute of limitations for people who did not know that they had a potential personal injury claim. In cases where the discovery rule applies, the statute of limitations will not begin to run until the plaintiff knew -- or should have known -- that he or she suffered an injury (or that the defendant is responsible for that injury). The discovery rule is most often used in medical malpractice cases, but may apply to other types of personal injury claims, depending on the circumstances.
The Defendant's Absence
Another common exception to the statute of limitations is when the defendant is absent from the state. Many states have a law that "tolls" (pauses) the statute of limitations for any amount of time that the defendant is absent from the state after the accident. While this is a perfectly valid law, you do not want to have to rely on this exception. It can be pretty hard to prove that the defendant was in fact out of the state.
Finally, when the plaintiff is a minor (i.e., under age 18), or deemed mentally ill. People in these situations are under what is called a “legal disability," and the statute of limitations may be extended for some period of time (the rules differ from state to state) while the plaintiff is under a legal disability. For example, in some states, a minor might have until age 21 to file a personal injury lawsuit, while in other states a minor might only have an extra two or three years.
Other, less common, exceptions to the statute of limitations include:
- The plaintiff's military service may toll the statute of limitations.
- If the plaintiff dies, his/her estate might have some additional time to file a personal injury claim.
- If the country is in a state of war, the statute of limitations might be tolled.
- Some states toll the statute of limitations while the plaintiff is in jail or prison.
- You will generally get an extra day or two if the statute of limitations expires on a weekend or holiday.
- The defendant can also waive the statute of limitations, but you don't want to rely on a defendant’s promise to waive the statute of limitations unless you have a lawyer.
Getting Help When the Statute of Limitations Deadline Has Passed
Keep in mind that it's difficult to prove that your case qualifies even when an exception to the running of the statute of limitations seems to apply. Since missing the deadline will make or break your case, it's important to talk with an experienced personal injury lawyer about your options. Learn more about Working With a Personal Injury Lawyer.