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Statutes of Limitations

If you have been injured — whether physically or financially — and you believe that you have grounds to file a lawsuit against the party responsible, how long do you have to file? This is one of the most important questions in any potential litigation. All potential lawsuits come with an expiration date, known as a statue of limitations.As its name implies, these time limitations are set forth in statutory law, independently established by the legislative bodies of each state (as well as by the federal government, for federal causes of action). Because the statute of limitations for each cause of action varies from state to state, it is important to bring your case to an experienced attorney in your state as soon as possible.

So, what is the time limit set forth by the relevant statute of limitations for your case? It depends both on the nature of your claim and the state in which you wish to file suit. For example, many jurisdictions impose a one-year statute of limitations for general personal injury claims. If you fall on a slippery sidewalk outside your local grocery store and sprain your ankle, for example, you will likely have one year in which to file a lawsuit for that injury. This isn't universal however; if your injury occurred in a neighboring state, you may have two years in which to file your claim. (With few exceptions, most statutes of limitations allow at least one year in which to sue.)

While statutes of limitations vary from state to state, they also vary from claim to claim. While a personal injury action in State A may have a one-year limitation, a medical malpractice claim in the same state may have a four-year limitation. Even more confusing, the statute of limitations may depend not only on the type of harm you suffered, but also on the cause of that harm. In Minnesota, for example, if someone accidently hit you with their car and broke your arm, you would have six years to file a personal injury claim. If that same person intentionally hit you with their car and caused your broken arm, however, you would have only two years to file a claim.

What happens if you are injured, but don't discover your injury until some later time? While this may seem unlikely, consider the case of a surgical patient who was unlucky enough to have a surgical towel or sponge left in his or her body by the surgeon. Often, these cases aren't discovered until years later, if at all. If the applicable statute of limitations for a medical malpractice claim in this person's state is four years and the medical error is not discovered until five years after the surgery, is this person out of luck?

Generally, statutes of limitations do not begin to run until the injured party discovers (or should have discovered) the injury. While the first situation is self-explanatory, the "should have discovered" language can be tricky. In our hypothetical patient above, the fact finder will generally ask when a reasonable person should have known that the operating physician had left a surgical towel or other detritus within the body. If the patient had suffered severe, unexplained pain for months after the surgery, the court may find that the patient was remiss in not investigating the cause and rule that the statute of limitations began some time prior to actual discovery of the harm.

Statutes of limitations are tricky and require the advice of an experienced attorney to navigate. As a general rule, if you think you may have a case against someone, speak to an attorney as soon as possible.

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