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If you're injured in an accident, you might not think you have a legal claim for compensation. In fact, you may not even realize you've been injured right away. So do you lose your legal rights to damages if you don't file a lawsuit first thing after an accident?
Not quite, but there are time limits to bringing an injury lawsuit, after which you lose your right to sue. These statutes of limitation can vary depending on where you live, what kind of claim you're filing, and when you discovered your injury. Here's a look.
Sands of Time
Evidence doesn't get better over time, so in the interest of deciding cases when memories and facts are fresh and avoid having potential legal claims looming indefinitely, legal systems have statute of limitations laws. State and federal legislatures set these time limits, and for personal injury cases the statute of limitations can range from one year (in Kentucky, Louisiana, and Tennessee) to five or six years (in Maine, Missouri, and North Dakota.
The statute of limitations can also vary depending on the type of claim being filed. For instance, medical malpractice claims often have shorter time limits, as do wrongful death claims. You can see the difference in how these three states' statutes of limitation vary:
Hands of the Clock
It's one thing to know how long you have to file an injury lawsuit, but just as important is to know when the clock starts ticking. In some cases, that can depend on the age of the injured person, as the statute of limitations for minors doesn't start tolling until they turn 18.
Most often, the statute begins upon discovery of the injury -- it's hard to know whether you should file an injury lawsuit if you don't know whether you're injured. For cases like car accidents and slip-and-falls, injuries generally present themselves fairly quickly. But in so-called "toxic torts," based on water or environmental pollution, injuries like lung disease, leukemia, birth injuries and even cancer may not present themselves for years or decades.
If you've been injured in an accident and are wondering if it's too late to file a personal injury lawsuit, talk to an experienced attorney in your area.