A statute of limitations is a law that sets a firm deadline on how much time can pass before you must file a civil lawsuit in court after you've suffered some type of harm—or lose your right to sue. Each state (and the federal government) sets its own statutes of limitations, with different deadlines for different kinds of cases.
In most states, a personal injury lawsuit needs to be filed within two or three years after the incident that led to to the injury. So, if you're hurt in a car accident on June 1, 2021 in Massachusetts, where the statute of limitations for injury lawsuits is three years, you have until June 1, 2024 to get a lawsuit filed over injuries suffered in the crash.
You cannot file a personal injury lawsuit once the statute of limitations time limit that applies to your case has run. But in some situations, the statutory "clock" might have started running later than usual, or special circumstances might have paused ("tolled" in legalese) the running of the clock. Let's look at a few of those situations.
In a number of states, under the "discovery rule" the statute of limitations "clock" might not start running until the injured person knew (or should have known, in the eyes of the law) that they were injured. An example might be asbestos cases where mesothelioma or some other asbestos-caused illness does not show up until decades after the plaintiff's exposure to materials that contained asbestos.
It's important to note that even when the "discovery rule" applies, there may be a larger deadline beyond which the filing of a lawsuit is prohibited. So, a state's statute might set a personal injury lawsuit-filing deadline of "two years after the injured person discovers (or reasonably should have discovered) that the defendant bears responsibility for his or her injury, or four years after the incident giving rise to the injury, whichever is later."
For plaintiffs who were minors at the time they were injured, most states allow the person to reach the age of 18 before the statute of limitations "clock" starts running. So, if you're injured in a car accident as a 15 year-old passenger in California (where the statute of limitations on personal injury cases is two years), you'll have until your 20th birthday to file a lawsuit.
The standard personal injury lawsuit filing deadline in a given state might not apply to all types of claims for physical and mental/emotional harm. Most states have a statute of limitations dedicated to medical malpractice cases, and a number of states have passed unique statutes of limitations for civil lawsuits over sexual assault. (In Connecticut, for example, civil claims for harm stemming from childhood sexual abuse can be brought until 30 years after the victim reaches adulthood.)
Other special circumstances might also extend or otherwise alter the lawsuit filing deadline. If the injured person becomes mentally incapacitated, the running of the clock might be tolled. If the defendant (the person at fault for the underlying accident) leaves the state for any amount of time between the incident and the filing of the lawsuit, the time of the absence might not count toward the statutory time period.
If you're thinking about filing a personal injury lawsuit, it's crucial to understand and abide by the statute of limitations in order to make sure your legal options are preserved. To understand the applicable filing deadline as it applies to your situation, consult a personal injury attorney.