What Is the Personal Injury Statute of Limitations in North Carolina?

How the North Carolina personal injury statutes of limitations work, and why the deadlines set by these state laws can make or break your case.

By , J.D. · University of San Francisco School of Law
Updated by Dan Ray, Attorney · University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Law

A "statute of limitations" is a law that puts a deadline on your time to file a lawsuit in court. In other words, it's a claim killer. That's its only job, and it does that job very efficiently. Miss the statute—that is, try to file your case after the time limit has expired—and chances are your lawsuit will be dismissed.

North Carolina has several statutes of limitations that cover personal injury lawsuits. Starting with the state's three-year general rule, we explain those that you're most likely to encounter. In some circumstances, North Carolina law extends the filing deadline, giving you longer to sue. We'll look at some examples. We close with a discussion of what happens to your legal claim if you miss the statute of limitations.

The General Rule: Three Years From the Date Your Injury Is Apparent

You can find North Carolina's general rule for personal injury cases at N.C. Stat. § 1-52(5) (2024). It allows you three years to file a lawsuit for "injury to the person." This three-year rule usually applies to a variety of personal injury lawsuits, like those involving:

When Does the Clock Start Running?

Unless another law says otherwise, the three-year clock starts ticking on the earlier of the date your injury:

  • becomes apparent, or
  • should have been apparent, had you been reasonably careful to look for signs and symptoms. (N.C. Stat. § 1-52(16) (2024).)

What Does This Mean?

It means that—unless another law says differently—North Carolina follows the "discovery rule" to determine when the statute of limitations starts running. Sometimes this will work to your advantage, giving you more time to file your case. Here's why.

In most cases, the clock will start on the date you were injured. Consider this example. You break your leg in a car wreck or a slip-and-fall accident. The pain and other symptoms mean your injury will be apparent right away. Because your injury is immediately apparent, the statute of limitations begins running that day.

Now, let's assume that on June 1, 2020, you started using a pesticide to kill bugs in your garden. On July 15, 2023, you began to experience shortness of breath and heart palpitations. Later that month, your doctor told you that these symptoms were caused by your exposure to the pesticide.

Because North Carolina has adopted the discovery rule, the three-year statute of limitations will run from either July 15, 2023, the date your first signs and symptoms of an injury became apparent, or the date later that month when your doctor tied your symptoms to the product.

Absent the discovery rule, your time to sue would run from June 1, 2020, the date you starting using the pesticide—and, presumably, the date it first caused you an injury. The three-year filing deadline would expire on June 1, 2023, before you even discovered your injury. That would, quite clearly, be an unfair result.

Statutes of Repose Limit Your Time to Discover an Injury

North Carolina has a second deadline, called a "statute of repose," that limits the time you have to discover your injury. A statute of repose runs even if you never discover you've been hurt. In most cases, the very latest that the statute of limitations will begin to run is 10 years after the last date that the defendant (the party you're suing) did something to harm you. (N.C. Stat. § 1-52(16) (2024).)

North Carolina also has other statutes of repose that apply in specific kinds of cases. For example, the law puts an outside limit of 12 years (from the date of initial purchase by a user or consumer) on product liability claims. (N.C. Stat. § 1-46.1(1) (2024).)

A North Carolina personal injury lawyer can tell you more.

Other Statutes of Limitations for Specific Personal Injury Cases

North Carolina's three year rule doesn't govern all personal injury cases. When a more specific statute of limitations is a better fit, that's probably the rule that applies. Here are some of the most common.

Intentional Injuries

Most personal injuries happen because the defendant was negligent, or careless. But injuries can result from intentional misconduct, too. When that happens, the law calls it an "intentional tort." Under N.C. Stat. § 1-52(19) (2024), you have three years to sue for these intentional torts:

Medical Malpractice

North Carolina's medical malpractice statute of limitations, N.C. Stat. § 1-15(c) (2024), is complex and can be difficult to apply. You should speak with experienced North Carolina legal counsel to make sure you understand the filing deadline in your case.

As a starting point, you typically have three years to sue for medical malpractice. The statute starts running on the date the malpractice happens. This deadline can be extended in some circumstances.

But North Carolina has a four-year statute of repose for malpractice lawsuits. Barring an exception, then, the latest you can file a medical malpractice case—regardless of when (or if) you discover your malpractice-related injury—is four years from the date of the malpractice.

(Learn more about North Carolina medical malpractice laws, including the statute of limitations.)

Defamation of Character

When someone makes a false statement of fact about you that harms your reputation in the community—what the law calls defamation of character—you must act quickly. You have just one year to sue for libel (written defamation) or slander (spoken defamation). This deadline runs from the date the defamatory statement is made. (N.C. Stat. § 1-54(3) (2024).)

Injuries Causing Death

When personal injuries cause death, the victim's estate might file suit to recover wrongful death damages. The deadline to sue is two years, beginning on the date of death. (N.C. Stat. § 1-53(4) (2024).)

Can North Carolina's Filing Deadline Be Extended?

In some circumstances, yes, North Carolina extends the filing deadline. Here are some examples.

Injured Person Is Legally Disabled

In North Carolina, a person is legally disabled if they're:

  • a minor (younger than 18 years old)
  • insane, or
  • incompetent.

When a person who's legally disabled suffers a personal injury, the statute of limitations usually doesn't start until the disability is "removed." (N.C. Stat. § 1-17(a) (2024).)

Different rules apply when a child is injured by medical malpractice. You'll need the advice of a North Carolina malpractice lawyer to determine how long you have to sue.

Defendant Is Absent From North Carolina

What happens if you're injured by someone who doesn't live in North Carolina, or who leaves the state after causing you an injury? Depending on the facts, you might get extra time to bring your personal injury case. Note that this exception only applies when, because of the defendant's absence from the state, you're unable to start a lawsuit against them. (N.C. Stat. § 1-21 (2024).)

Ask your lawyer if you'll be able to get "service of process" on the out-of-state defendant. If the answer is yes, then you won't be able to take advantage of this extension.

What If You Miss the Filing Deadline?

Worried that the deadline to file your personal injury case has passed or is about to run out very soon? First things first. Don't panic. Your first call should be to a North Carolina personal injury lawyer. You want to know:

  • what the statute of limitations is for your case
  • whether the limitation period has expired or is due to expire soon, and
  • if the deadline has passed or is imminent, whether there's an extension that might give you more time.

If the time to file your case has run out and no extension is available, then your legal claim is dead. Nothing you can do will revive it. Try to file a lawsuit and the court will dismiss it as untimely. Even worse, the defendant might ask the court to sanction (penalize) you for filing a frivolous action.

You won't have any better luck if you're trying to negotiate a settlement of your claim without having filed in court. All your negotiating leverage goes out the window once you no longer have the threat of legal action to back you up. The defendant and its insurer won't take you or your case seriously. You can't force them to pay you anything, and they're not going to voluntarily write you a check.

Get Help With Your Statute of Limitations Issues

Trying to navigate your way through statute of limitations issues on your own is a bit like trying to cross a busy freeway while blindfolded. A mistake can be devastating, and you probably won't know you've erred until it's too late. A North Carolina personal injury attorney knows the filing deadline that applies to your case, and can tell you whether you might be able to benefit from an extension.

When you're ready to move forward, here's how you can find a personal injury lawyer near you.

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