The answer to that question is something called the statute of limitations. Every state and the federal courts have one. Typically, the statute of limitations controls how long people have to file a negligence or other legal claim. Like many other areas of the law, the statute of limitations is a balancing act. Tortfeasors (negligent actors) should not have to look over their shoulders in fear of a lawsuit for the rest of their lives. Likewise, victims should have ample time to realize the extent of their injuries, attach a cause to their damages, and collect evidence to support their positions.
The line must be drawn somewhere, and most states draw the line at different places and in different ways.
Limitation of Actions
In most states, the statute of limitations for most negligence cases is two years. That includes claims such as slip-and-fall injuries, car crashes, and dog bites.
However, this is only a rule of thumb and the rules vary significantly. Sometimes, the rules vary within the same state. For example, Georgia’s negligence statute of limitations is usually two years. But if the tortfeasor was a government employee, special rules may apply under the Georgia Tort Claims Act. The statute of limitations can be as short as one year in these cases.
Statutes of Repose
The rules also vary depending on the type of negligence. The statute of limitations usually begins running on the date of injury. But if a defective or dangerous product hurt or killed the victim, some states use a statute of repose. Unlike the SOL, the SOR begins running on the date the victim purchased the product. For this reason, the statute of repose is usually much longer than the statute of limitations.
Things get even more complicated when the injury is a serious illness, such as cancer, as opposed to a broken bone or other trauma injury. It is often several years, or even several decades, before symptoms appear and the victim connects the illness with a tortious act.
It’s very important to know the rules, and it’s even more important to partner with a personal injury lawyer who knows those rules.