In Pennsylvania, if you are considering making a personal injury claim, it’s important to understand the statute of limitations and how it applies to your potential lawsuit. A “statute of limitations” is just a law that puts a strict time limit on your right to file a lawsuit in the state's civil court system. There are usually different deadlines depending on the kind of case you want to file.
The relevant statute of limitations for Pennsylvania personal injury plaintiffs can be found at Pennsylvania Cons. Stat. Title 42 section 5524 says that “an action to recover damages for injuries to the person or for the death of an individual caused by the wrongful act or neglect or unlawful violence or negligence of another" must be brought within two years.
In plain English, that means whether we’re talking about a car accident, slip and fall, an assault or any other kind of mishap or intentional action, if someone else caused you any kind of injury, you have two years to get any civil lawsuit filed against them, and the “clock” starts running on the date of the underlying incident. (Learn more about How and When to File a Personal Injury Lawsuit.)
Even if you don’t think you’re going to file a personal injury lawsuit -- maybe you’re well into the insurance settlement process -- it's still important to keep the statute of limitations in mind. You always want to make sure you have the option of taking your case to court. Lose that option, and you lose your negotiating leverage during injury settlement talks. (Learn more about The Role of Insurance in Settling an Injury Claim.)
What happens if you don't get your personal injury lawsuit started before Pennsylvania’s two-year window closes? In that situation, you can bet that the person you are trying to sue will ask the court to dismiss your lawsuit, and unless some exception applies to extend the deadline (more on these below) the court will grant the request. If that happens, you’re left with no way to hold the other party responsible for your injuries and other losses.
Exceptions to the Running of the Statute of Limitations “Clock” in Pennsylvania
There are some rare instances where the running of the two-year “clock” can be paused or “tolled” in Pennsylvania, meaning that the filing deadline is extended.
One of the most common of these exceptions is codified at Pennsylvania Cons. Stat. Title 42 section 5533, which says: “If an individual entitled to bring a civil action is an unemancipated minor at the time the cause of action accrues, the period of minority shall not be deemed a portion of the time period within which the action must be commenced. Such person shall have the same time for commencing an action after attaining majority as is allowed to others by the provisions of this subchapter.” In the context of a personal injury lawsuit, that means says that if the injured person is under 18 (and not legally emancipated from his or her parent or guardian) at the time of the underlying accident or incident, the two-year “clock” won’t start running until the injured person turns 18.
Also, under Pennsylvania Cons. Stat. Title 42 section 5532, if the potential defendant is outside the state of Pennsylvania at the time of the underlying injury, is absent from the state for more than four months, or conceals him or herself via a false name within the state, that will likely suspend the running of the statute of limitations period.
Those are just a few examples. If you have specific questions about extending the statute of limitations deadline, or about the lawsuit process in general, a knowledgeable Pennsylvania personal injury attorney can help.