The Statute of Limitations: How Inaction Can Kill Your Personal Injury Lawsuit
by: Edward B. Mulligan V , Attorney
As a lawyer who represents personal injury victims, I can tell you that each case–even the very best–must face and overcome numerous legal hurdles between the filing of the complaint and trial or settlement. While some of these “hurdles” are easily overcome, others can pose serious problems for even the best cases.
The legal hurdle that can have the most all-or-nothing consequences for personal injury cases is known as the “statute of limitations.” A statute of limitations is exactly what it sounds like: a law or rule enacted by your state’s legislature that limits the amount of time you have to file a lawsuit. The statutes do vary from state to state with some offering longer deadlines than others.
However, don’t let the word “limit” fool you. In some circumstances, the statute of limitations can kill your entire case, no matter how strong it may be. For example, in Indiana, personal injury victims must file a lawsuit within two years of when they discovered or could have discovered that they were hurt by the act of another. See Ind. Code Sec. 34-11-2-4(2). The “discovered” or “could have discovered” language, which is known as the “discovery rule,” delays the start of the two-year countdown until the injury and its cause have been “discovered” or could have been discovered by the personal injury victim.
In practice, the discovery rule does not play much of a role in your standard car accident case because the injured party is typically aware of both the injury and the cause of that injury (the accident caused by the other driver) at the moment of impact. So the two year countdown begins on the date of the accident. However in more complicated cases, including exposure to toxic substances or injuries resulting from exposure to toxic substances, prescription drugs, or other products, the injury may be latent, i.e. it may be internal and therefore not obvious or it may not appear until later. In these types of cases, there may end up being a legal dispute between the plaintiff and defendant as to when the two year countdown begins.
Once a person has discovered that the injury was caused by the act of another the two-year countdown begins and the statute begins to “run.” If you do not file your lawsuit before this two-year window closes, your case is barred by the statute of limitations and the court will have no choice but to dismiss your case without any consideration of how strong it is or how severe your injuries are. While there are a few exceptions, they are limited in number and are rarely applied by the courts. As you can see, the statutes of limitation can prevent a personal injury victim from ever recovering money damages to compensate them for the common financial hardship that accompanies a physical injury, such as medical bills, lost wages, and other damages.
What is the point of the statute of limitation you ask? One of the justifications for the statute of limitations is to ensure that the evidence and witnesses are more likely to be accurate.
What is the best way to prevent the statute of limitations from getting in the way of your day in court? Contact an attorney as soon as you think you have been injured. Most personal injury attorneys, myself included, do not charge for an initial consultation, so there is no excuse for waiting. All you have to do is pick up the telephone. I often take these types of calls from potential clients who explain to me what they believe happened to them and who is responsible. Very often I am able to give them an idea of whether they have a case or not simply by asking a few follow-up questions. The point is, if you have been injured, don’t wait around to find out if you have a case; make the effort to reach out to an attorney. You have nothing to lose other than your day in court.