What Is the Personal Injury Statute of Limitations in Pennsylvania?

Learn how long you have to file a Pennsylvania personal injury lawsuit, when you might get more time to file, and what happens to your case if you miss the deadline.

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 limits your time to file a lawsuit in court. Its one and only job is to kill legal claims. Every state has lots of them, with different filing periods for different kinds of cases. For example, a state might put a two-year filing deadline on personal injury lawsuits, a three-year limit on the time to sue for a tax refund, and a four-year limitation period on cases involving written contracts.

Pennsylvania has several personal injury statutes of limitations. We begin with the Commonwealth's two-year general rule, the time limit that applies to most personal injury claims. From there, we'll cover some other common statutes of limitations, and have a look at a few situations when you might have longer to file your case. We close with what happens if you miss the filing deadline.

Pennsylvania's General Rule: Two Years to File a Personal Injury Lawsuit

Most Pennsylvania personal injury claims are covered by the state's general rule, found in 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 5524(2) (2024). It says that a lawsuit 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 filed within two years. The clock usually starts ticking on the date of injury or death.

Unless a more specific statute of limitations applies, this is the rule for lawsuits involving:

Other Pennsylvania Personal Injury Statutes of Limitations

Pennsylvania's general rule covers most, but not all, personal injury claims. Here are some others you might encounter.

Certain Intentional Torts

Most personal injury claims result from negligent (meaning careless) misconduct. But injuries also happen because of intentional wrongdoing. When someone purposefully or deliberately harms you, the law calls it an "intentional tort." 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 5524(1) (2024) allows you two years to sue for these intentional torts:

As with the general rule, your time to file a lawsuit usually starts on the date you're injured.

Defamation of Character

When someone makes a false statement of fact about you that harms your reputation in the community, you might decide to sue for defamation of character. You have just one year, usually from the date a defamatory statement is first made about you, to file a libel (written defamation) or slander (spoken defamation) case in court. (42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 5523(1) (2024).)

Claims Against the Government

Lots of special rules apply if you want to sue the Pennsylvania government—state or local—for your personal injuries. Among those rules is a special pre-lawsuit notice requirement.

Before you're allowed to sue in court, you must give the government written notice of your claim and your intent to sue. And you need to act very quickly. The notice deadline is just six months after the date you're injured. (42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 5522(a) (2024).) Fail to give the Commonwealth the required notice and your lawsuit is barred. The same is probably true if you don't provide a local government with notice.

(Learn more about personal injury claims against the Pennsylvania government.)

Can Pennsylvania's Lawsuit-Filing Deadlines Be Extended?

Yes, sometimes a statute of limitations deadline can be extended. Understand that these are exceptions to the usual statutes of limitations rules. If you intend to rely on one of the extensions we discuss here, you'll need to convince the court that it applies. In most cases, you should expect a fight from the defendant (the party you're suing).

The Discovery Rule

In the usual Pennsylvania personal injury case, the statute of limitations runs from the date you're injured. Because you typically know right away that you've been hurt, there's nothing unfair about starting the lawsuit-filing deadline clock when your injury happens.

But what if you don't realize you've been injured when it happens? Starting the statute of limitations clock on that day means your time to file a lawsuit might be ticking away while you're unaware that you have a legal claim. That's not fair.

To address that unfairness, Pennsylvania's Supreme Court has adopted a version of the "discovery rule." Under the discovery rule, when you don't know you've been injured, and you couldn't discover your injury even if you were being diligent to look for signs and symptoms, the statute of limitations doesn't start on the date you were hurt. Instead, the clock runs from the earlier of:

  • the date you discover your injury, or
  • the date you should have discovered your injury, had you been reasonably careful.

Now for the bad news. Pennsylvania uses a very narrow version of the discovery rule. It doesn't apply in all (or even most) personal injury cases. If you hope to rely on the discovery rule, it's critical that you first consult with a Pennsylvania personal injury lawyer. You should have the lawyer represent you and make your arguments to the court. Without expert help on your side, you stand little chance of success.

Defendant Is Absent From Pennsylvania or Goes Into Hiding

In order to start your personal injury lawsuit, you must serve (formally deliver) the lawsuit documents on the defendant. Getting service can be difficult if the defendant is absent from the Commonwealth or goes into hiding to avoid being sued. Pennsylvania law anticipates this problem and provides relief.

The statute of limitations doesn't run when you can't get service on the defendant because:

  • at the time you were injured, the defendant was outside Pennsylvania, or
  • after you were injured, the defendant left the Commonwealth or lived in the state under a false name that was unknown to you.

(42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 5532 (2024).)

The deadline clock starts (or resumes) when the defendant returns to Pennsylvania or you discover their false identity. Speak to your lawyer about whether you'll be able to serve the defendant with your lawsuit.

Injured Person Is a Minor

A minor (someone younger than 18 years old) generally can't file a lawsuit without help from a parent or guardian. When a minor who hasn't been emancipated suffers an injury, the statute of limitations likely doesn't start running until their 18th birthday. (42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 5533(b)(1)(i) (2024).)

What If You Miss the Pennsylvania Statute of Limitations?

Worried that the statute of limitations has expired or is about to run out very soon? First things first. Contact a Pennsylvania personal injury lawyer right away. Here's what you should ask.

  • What is the statute of limitations for my case?
  • Has the filing deadline passed, or is it going to expire soon?
  • If my time to sue has passed (or is about to), is there an extension that might allow me more time to file?

Keep in mind that lawyers earn a living by making favorable arguments on their clients' behalf. If there's a good faith argument that you should get more time to file your case, a lawyer is going to spot it. It might be a longshot, but some chance is better than none.

When the statute of limitations has expired and no extension of time is available, your personal injury claim is dead. Nothing you do will bring it back to life. Try to file a lawsuit and the defendant will ask the court to dismiss it as untimely, a request the court will have to grant. The defendant might also ask the court to sanction (penalize) you for filing a frivolous case.

You won't have any better luck trying to negotiate a settlement of your case. Once the threat of a lawsuit is off the table, all your negotiating leverage disappears. Because you have no way to force them to pay you, neither the defendant nor their insurance company will take you or your injury claim seriously. You've lost the right to collect compensation for your injuries.

Get Help With Your Statute of Limitations Problem

If you take nothing else from our discussion, it should be this: You don't want to handle a statute of limitations problem on your own, without legal counsel. Statutes of limitations are among the most complex and difficult to understand of all laws. Many lawyers who don't handle lawsuits won't give advice about statutes of limitations because the risk of error is so great.

A Pennsylvania personal injury lawyer knows the filing deadlines for your case and can guide you through the statute of limitations minefield with a steady hand. When you're ready to move forward, here's how you can find an attorney near you.

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