A personal injury case arises when one person suffers physical damage or mental trauma as a result of an accident or injury, for which some other person, company or a group is held legally responsible. A personal injury claim goes through civil court proceedings to get formalized after which the affected person can seek to resolve the case with an informal out-of-court settlement or file a lawsuit. Unfortunately, personal injury cases are the most common cause of unintentional deaths affecting millions annually in the United States. It has been observed that there are almost 6 million vehicle collisions and 5 million dog bite incidents in the nation.
The most common types of personal injury cases fall under one of the following categories:
- Motor Vehicle Accidents
- Medical Malpractice
- Workplace Accidents
- Dog Bite
- Product Liability
- Premise Liability
What are the Statutes of Limitations?
The statutes of limitations are laws which set the maximum time within which parties involved in a dispute are required to initiate their legal proceedings.
Essentially, a statute of limitation forbids prosecutors from filing a lawsuit against the offender for a crime that was committed more than a specified number of years ago.
What is the need of the Statute of Limitation?
The main purpose of the statute of limitation is to protect the defendants and give them reasonable repose, that is, to prevent parties from defending stale claims. Another underlying reason for the existence of statute is to prompt plaintiffs to diligently pursue their claims. Also, when a claim that has been long-dormant enters litigation phase it might result in more cruelty than justice. Before the statute of limitations, victims could come back after decades had passed, to sue for the wrongful death of a loved one. By that time, however, files were destroyed, witnesses deceased or difficult to find, and the memories of all involved rendered unreliable by the passage of time. In court, suits like this resulted in judgments that did not fit the injury, or sometimes in no judgment at all.
Thus, the statute of limitations is set to help victims receive the best form of justice possible.
When Does The Statute Begin?
This differs state-wise based on different time frames. For example, some states might start the clock at the time of the medicine purchase. Others might start it on the date the alleged injury occurred or was detected. The plaintiff must be aware of the relevant statute of limitation applicable to their claim. In some cases, an injury may not be detected until months or several years after the defective drug was used. For example, a pregnant woman may not be aware of the disastrous effect of a certain medicine until her child is diagnosed with a disability.
How different states decide when the clock starts ticking on the claims?
One way that states follow is by starting the Statute of Limitations clock when the injury occurred.
For example, if you underwent a transvaginal mesh surgery to treat stress urinary incontinence (SUI) or pelvic organ prolapse (POP) and in few months started experiencing pelvic pain or unusual bleeding as an adverse effect of the procedure. Then, according to some states, you have to file your case within the state declared time limit i.e. statute on your claim begins from the date the surgery was conducted. But not all states consider this as the beginning of the statute. Some states start the statute of limitations when the injury was discovered or should have been discovered, thereby granting more time to file a claim.
The US Supreme Court has described the standard rule since the 1830s of when the time begins as “when the plaintiff has a complete and present cause of action.”
The Discovery Rule
A discovery rule is applicable for some cases like medical malpractice and it can affect when the statute of limitations begins to run. An injury that causes a wrongful death may not be apparent when it happened first. So, the statute of limitation will begin at the time the injury was discovered or should have been discovered. Consider a statute of limitation of two years for instance. If the injury was discovered one year after it actually occurred then, the two-year time frame begins on the day of discovery. However, every state uses the discovery rule in a different way.
Exceptions and Tolling
The statute of limitations is a protective shield for the defendants. However, a plaintiff can prevent the case from being dismissed by trying to toll the statute.
Many jurisdictions toll or suspend the statute under some specific circumstances where the plaintiff was a minor or filed a bankruptcy proceeding. In such situations, the running statute is tolled or paused, until some law-specified event takes place to end those conditions. This gives plaintiffs get an extended time period to bring forth their suit. There are many reasons the statute to get tolled, like, when the defendant followed a deceptive marketing tactic in an attempt to conceal a plaintiff from recognizing a possible cause of action by providing fake documents or false claims regarding a product’s effectiveness. Another reason the statute may be tolled is due to disability or minority. A person might be physically unfit which makes him not competent to bring a claim to the court, so the statute gets tolled until the disability gets resolved. If there is a three-year statute of limitation and the injury occurred to a 15-year-old, then the statute expires on the victim’s 21st birthday.
A statute of limitation is not just an expiration date; it is one of the ways families lose out their right to take their case forward to secure justice. The statute of limitations and discovery rule might be a burden for some, a boon for others, it can complicate or delay the legal proceedings of a case. So, you need to make sure you have the right facts at the right time for a fair judgment.
If you are a lawyer or part of a law firm dealing with Mass Torts, Medical Malpractice or Personal Injury cases, we can assist you in fast-tracking your case process.
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Maine and North Dakota have the longest Civil statute of limitations in personal injury cases, which is 6 years.