The Standard Statute of Limitations for Personal Injury
Each state and the federal government maintain their own statute of limitations for personal injury lawsuits. The statute of limitations can be as short as one year, such as in Tennessee, Louisiana and Kentucky, or as long as six years, such as in Maine and North Dakota. New Jersey and 23 other states maintain a two-year statute of limitations. In New York and 16 other states, the statute of limitations is three years.
Different Time Limits for Different Types of Claims
Some states maintain different statutes of limitations for certain types of claims. For instance, Colorado extends the statute of limitations from two to three years for car accident victims. Kentucky does the same, extending its statute of limitations from one to two years.
Several states, including New Jersey, have longer statutes of limitations for property damage. What this means is that if you sustained a personal injury in a car accident in New Jersey, you would have two years to file a claim for compensation for your injury-related losses and up to six years to file a claim for compensation for damages to your vehicle.
Many states maintain shorter filing deadlines when government agencies are involved. For instance, in New York, you have 90 days to file a notice of a claim against a government entity and another year after that to file an official lawsuit. In New Jersey, you have 90 days period to file a lawsuit or claim against a government entity.
When the Clock Starts Ticking
Typically, the clock starts running down the moment the accident that caused your injuries occurs. For instance, if you are in a car accident on December 1st, you have between one and six years to file a personal injury lawsuit for damages.
However, some people are involved in incidents or exposed to dangers that cause latent injuries. To account for these occurrences, the courts maintain what they call the “discovery of harm” rule.
The “Discovery of Harm” Rule
The discovery of harm rule extends the filing deadline for persons who develop injuries after the fact. For this rule to apply, the injured person must not have known or had any reasonable basis for knowing that he or she had suffered harm or what the basis for that harm could possibly be. While it may seem impossible to not know you have sustained an injury, latent injuries trigger personal injury lawsuits more often than you might think.
An example of when the discovery of harm rule may apply is if a surgeon leaves a sponge in a patient. The patient may not develop symptoms until months or even years later, at which point, his or her health may have drastically deteriorated. He or she may also have received considerable medical care to manage the symptoms and discover their cause. When a medical team does discover the sponge, the damage is already done. In this case, the courts will likely start the clock on the date the patient “discovers” the sponge, and not on the date of his or her surgery.
For the delay in discovery rule to apply, your situation must be reasonable given the circumstances. If you are the patient in the above scenario, you would, ideally, seek medical treatment as soon as you begin experiencing symptoms. Symptoms of a left-in object may include bloating, abdominal pain and infections. If your symptoms worsen over the years because of your failure to seek medical care, the courts may consider your delay in discovery unreasonable and, therefore, bar your claim based on non-compliance with the statute of limitations.
The discovery of harm rule rarely applies in typical personal injury cases. In events such as car accidents or slip and fall incidences, the source and nature of your injuries is clear and, therefore, there is nothing for you to “discover.”
“Tolling” the Statute of Limitations
In special situations, the courts may “toll” the statute of limitations. The term, “tolling the statute of limitations,” simply means that the clock stops running until the plaintiff is in a situation in which he or she can reasonably file and/or pursue a personal injury lawsuit.
There are few circumstances in which the courts will agree to toll the statute of limitations. Though the courts have the right use their discretion to make exceptions, some reasons for tolling are more common than others:
- The injured party is a minor, in which case the statute of limitations will not start running until he or she reaches the age of majority
- The injured party is legally incompetent — meaning, his or her level of brain functioning is so low that he or she cannot manage his or her own daily affairs; in this case, the statute of limitation will not start running until he or she becomes legally competent
- The event that caused the injury becomes subject to a criminal investigation, in which case the courts will toll the statute of limitations until the conclusion of said investigation
- The defendant commits fraud, which prevents the injured party from pursuing a personal injury claim, in which case the statute of limitations begins running on the date the injured person discovers the fraud
- The defendant leaves the state, in which case the courts will toll the statute of limitations until he or she returns so that the plaintiff may serve him or her notice of the lawsuit
It is important to note that even if the courts toll the statute of limitations, you likely have to file your claim within the statute of repose. A statute of repose is an outside deadline by which you must file your lawsuit, regardless of tolling. If you miss the statute of repose, the courts will bar your ability to recover.
Personal Injury Claim Vs. a Personal Injury Lawsuit
The statute of limitations applies only to lawsuits. In most cases, you would go through negotiations with your own or the at-fault party’s insurance company to reach an out-of-court settlement. Only if you and the defendant cannot reach an agreement would you file a personal injury lawsuit.
Regardless of when you file an insurance claim or how long the negotiations take, the statute of limitations is firm in most cases. What this means is that if you decide to pursue a lawsuit in, say, New Jersey, after a year and a half of negotiations, you have just six months to do so.
Seek Help From a Knowledgeable Personal Injury Lawyer
If another person’s or entity’s negligence causes you considerable harm, the best thing you can do to protect your interests and your rights is to consult with a personal injury attorney from the get-go. A lawyer can support you through the negotiations process and push for a fair and favorable settlement. He or she can also identify when it is time to give up on negotiations and file a lawsuit instead. To obtain a better understanding of your rights, responsibilities and options, schedule your free consultation with Judd Shaw Injury Law™ today.