Potential clients often hear warnings from wrongful death lawyers about the statute of limitations and do not quite know what this term means. Far from being a pressure campaign to get clients in the door quickly, these warnings actually save clients from losing their right to sue. Stated simply, if the statute of limitation runs out, along with it goes your right to receive financial compensation if you have not filed a claim. This is an unforgiving deadline that can have very harsh consequences for your case if you miss it.
State Laws Set Statutes of Limitations
Each wrongful death lawsuit is filed under state law, which means the law of the state where you must file the lawsuit will apply to your case. Each state has its own statutes that govern legal claims. This means that there may be different statutes of limitations depending on where you file. After we explain a little more about statutes of limitations, we will go into more detail about some of the laws in individual states.
The statute of limitations is exactly as it sounds. It serves to limit your right to file a lawsuit. Here, the limitation applies to the time that you have to begin your court cases.
Time Limits Start When You Suffered Injuries or Should Have Known of the Injury
Statutes of limitations set time limits in terms of when your case “accrues.” In non-legalese terms, this means the time that you knew or should have known that you suffered injuries. In wrongful death cases, there is very little doubt about the beginning of the statute of limitations. Quite simply, it is the date of death of the victim.
The only possible exception in a wrongful death case is that, while you knew that your loved one died, fraud or concealment prevented you from filing a case against the responsible party. In this case, you could end up with an extension to the statute of limitations. However, you first must show the court that someone else committed fraud that concealed your grounds for a possible lawsuit.
Statutes of Limitations Lend Certainty to the Legal System
While the statute of limitations can help you, the primary beneficiary is the defendant. The law gives the potential defendant some legal certainty within a set deadline. After all, it would not be fair for a defendant to receive notice many years later that they could face potential legal liability. No person or business could plan financially for the future if that were the case.
Even if the defendant’s liability for your injuries is as clear as day, the statute of limitations will not change, with very few exceptions. One of these is when the defendant has purposefully done something to keep you from learning that you have a possible lawsuit. If none of these exceptions apply, the statute of limitations is a hard and fast deadline. Even missing it by a day will likely result in the defendant successfully requesting a case dismissal.
Each State Has Its Own Unique Rules
It follows that every state will have its own rules and laws about statutes of limitations, even if the underlying principles are the same. First, states will have different time limits depending on the action. For example, personal injury claims in which the victim lived might have a different deadline than wrongful death claims.
It does not matter where you live. Instead, what is important for statutes of limitations is where you need to file your case. If you are filing in a different state, its laws control your case’s filing deadlines.
States with One-Year Statutes of Limitations
Most states have two-year wrongful death statutes of limitations. However, that is not the rule in every state. Some jurisdictions have set short statutes of limitations.
In the following states, the deadline for wrongful death claims is only one year:
Many Statutes of Limitations Are Two Years
Nearly half of the states have two-year statutes of limitations. Included in this list are Texas, California, and Georgia. Most states with two-year statutes of limitations for personal injury cases will also have the same deadline for wrongful death cases.
Some States Have Different Rules for Wrongful Death
Some states have the same statutes of limitations for both injury and wrongful death claims, while others do not. The longest personal injury statutes of limitations are in Maine and North Dakota, where litigants have six years to file their claims. However, in North Dakota, the statute of limitations for a wrongful death case is only two years. In Maine, while the general deadline for a personal injury lawsuit is six years, the wrongful death statute of limitations is two years. This becomes three years when the wrongful death is the result of medical malpractice.
Some states will give a general statute of limitations for personal injury cases, but they may then carve out certain categories of lawsuits and give them other time limits. One example of this is New York. The general personal injury statute of limitation in New York is three years. However, medical malpractice cases must begin within 30 months after the injury. This also includes situations when the wrongful death happens because of medical malpractice.
Florida’s laws operate similarly. In general, litigants have four years to file personal injury claims. However, wrongful death claims must begin within two years of the date of death. Most states with statutes of limitations longer than two years will have shorter wrongful death time limits.
Because the statutes of limitations vary so much from state to state, and can differ from personal injury time limits, you need a wrongful death lawyer to evaluate how much time you have to file your case. Finding the best wrongful death attorney near you can help clear up any confusion regarding your time frame and ensure that you file your case on time.
Many States Give You Shorter Periods to Sue the Government
In addition to limitations on claims against private parties, many states will have shorter periods in which you can file lawsuits against the state or other governmental agencies. For example, in Maine, the state with the longest personal injury deadline, you only have two years to file a lawsuit against the government. Usually, this includes lawsuits against transit agencies, even though they are not always fully a governmental agency. When states have a two-year statute of limitations, they may give you a year to sue the state.
The time period begins when the claimant knew or should have known that they suffered injuries. This encourages an injured plaintiff to get medical treatment as soon as they can, lest they face accusations of being willfully blind to an injury. For example, an accident victim may not get extra time if they waited a year to go to the doctor after the accident.
Another key difference is that states separate the timeframes. For instance, California has the common two-year window to file a lawsuit. However, two years is from the date of the accident itself. If you did not discover that you suffered injuries until later, you have one year from that date to file the lawsuit. This is important in things like product liability lawsuits, where you may not know that you sustained harm until years in the future.
An example of this is the recent massive Roundup lawsuits in which thousands of plaintiffs became sick by the weedkiller. They did not develop lymphoma as a result of their exposure until years later.
When wrongful death happens due to government agencies or dangerous products, the time limits can get even more confusing.
The Statute of Limitations Can Actually Help You
In a way, while it seems like the statute of limitation’s purpose is to cut back on your right to file a lawsuit, it helps plaintiffs. Especially in wrongful death cases, evidence can get lost or grow stale over a while. Witnesses may become unavailable, and in some cases, may even die between the accident and the lawsuit. Physical evidence can also get destroyed due to the passage of time. If you filed a lawsuit years into the future, you may not prove your case.
We cannot overstate enough the importance of knowing the statute of limitations of the state in which you intend to file. If you miss this deadline, there is nothing that you can do to regain your right to file a lawsuit. Because of the public policy considerations discussed above, courts are generally very unforgiving when a litigant misses the filing deadline. There are very few excuses that a judge will even entertain before deciding to dismiss the case.
Consult a Wrongful Death Lawyer as Soon as Possible
The above points illustrate why you need to consult a wrongful death lawyer very early after your injury. One of the first questions that you need to ask is about the statute of limitations, so you can ensure that you file your lawsuit in enough time to beat the deadline. The last thing that you want to do is to go down to the wire on your case and risk having to rush your complaint to beat the time clock.
At the same time, your legal complaint is something that you cannot afford to rush. There are many reasons why you need a lawyer to begin work on your lawsuit early.
- Wrongful death claims take some time to investigate. Your attorney will likely need to speak to witnesses to understand the facts as they draft the complaint.
- The legal complaint forms the basis for motions to dismiss that the defendant will almost always file afterward. Unless you get leave to file an amended complaint, the defendant will be trying to persuade the court that your initial claim does not clear the legal bar to proceed further in court.
- The stronger your initial complaint is, the more likely the defendant will want to settle with you. They may even make a stronger financial offer seeing that you presented a compelling legal case in your first filing.
Why Some People Wait to File their Lawsuit
Victims may ask if they should wait until the tail end of the statute of limitations to file their lawsuit. That depends on many factors. Victims may want to obtain as much leeway as possible to negotiate with the insurance company to obtain a reasonable settlement. The insurance company is watching the clock too, and they may start to get serious about settlement negotiations as the time limit approaches. In a way, settlement negotiations are a delicate game with both parties watching each other and the deadlines.
However, you should be careful about waiting too long because things could happen at the last minute before the deadline, and the court will not be forgiving. You should discuss the question of when to file in close consultation with your wrongful death attorney, who will help you weigh all the factors.
However, the longer that you wait to file your lawsuit, the more delayed your money if you settle or win your case. You have already incurred losses by not having your loved one around. There are valid reasons for filing a lawsuit more quickly.
These are some of the things that you will consider with your wrongful death lawyer after your initial consultation and as the case unfolds. Your ultimate goal is to put yourself in the best possible position to receive financial compensation.