You might have heard the phrase “time is of the essence.”
Often, this phrase is used in contract law and it means that whoever is fulfilling the contract has to do so within a certain amount of time. In other words, if you don’t do whatever you’re contractually obligated to do within a specified period of time, you’re breaching (breaking) the contract.
Some people use the phrase to mean that timing is important and if you don’t do something on time, you can lose your right or ability to continue.
That’s exactly what happens if the statute of limitations runs out on your personal injury claim in North Carolina.
If you’ve suffered an injury caused by someone’s negligence, you might be thinking of filing a lawsuit. There are a lot of reasons why you should take the first steps — like finding a lawyer — as soon as possible.
Statutes of limitations exist to protect both parties against a court making decisions based on stale evidence. It’s an incentive for an injured person to file a claim promptly and provides notice to the defendant that they should preserve evidence.
For most tort lawsuits, the statute of limitations in North Carolina is 3 years. But that time can pass faster than it seems. Your lawyer has a significant amount of preparation to do before they file a lawsuit, and they need time to do that.
North Carolina law says the 3-year statute of limitations begins to run on the date when “bodily harm to the claimant or physical damage to his property becomes apparent or ought reasonably to have become apparent to the claimant, whichever event first occurs.”
In other words, the time begins on the date of the injury or accident. If the injury was caused by a condition that occurred over time (such as cancer caused by exposure to toxins like asbestos), the time begins to run on the date of diagnosis or when the plaintiff reasonably should’ve known that the injury or illness was the result of negligence.
If you miss the 3-year deadline, the case isn’t automatically thrown out of court. It’s up to the defendant to file a motion to dismiss based on an expired statute of limitations.
There are a few reasons why the 3-year clock doesn’t work for every single case.
If the injured person is a minor, the clock pauses (or “tolls”) until they turn 18.
The injured person has 3 years from their 18th birthday (so, by their 21st birthday) to file a lawsuit for an injury that happened before they were 18. So, whether the child was age 5, age 15, or age 17 ½ when they were injured, the lawsuit can be filed until they turn 21.
Tolling is also effective for a plaintiff who is declared “incompetent” or “insane” according to North Carolina law. The clock would begin to run when the person is declared sane or competent.
The family member of someone who has died may file a lawsuit for wrongful death within 2 years of the person’s date of death.
But even that rule has an exception.
A wrongful death claim is derivative. The family is filing a lawsuit on behalf of the person who died. The family must file within the statute of limitations the injured person would’ve been subject to if they’d survived. If the victim was injured in an accident but died of their injuries 5 years later, the family won’t be able to file a wrongful death action because their original 3-year statute of limitations for the claim has expired.
There are instances when a plaintiff might become aware many years later that they were injured by medical or pharmaceutical malpractice.
Here are a few situations when the statute of limitations for a North Carolina medical malpractice claim could be more than 3 years:
If the defendant moves out of North Carolina and is continuously outside the state for 1 year or more, the period of time during which they’re absent usually isn’t counted as part of the 3-year statute of limitations period. This can come into play if the injured person is enlisted in the military and is given an assignment out of state (or country).
If a person is injured by a dangerous or defective product, they may file a lawsuit for up to 6 years from the date they purchased the item.
|Type of tort||General statute||Statute of limitations|
|Personal injury||§1-52||3 years|
|Libel or slander||§1-54||1 year|
|Injury to property||§1-52(4)||3 years|
|Professional malpractice||§1-15||2 years from the last damaging act of the defendant, up to 4 years. For a foreign item left in the body, 1 year from discovery, up to 10 years.|
|Collection of rents||§1-52||3 years|
|Breach of contract||§1-52||3 years|
|Wrongful death||§1-53(4)||2 years|
|False imprisonment||§1-52(19)||3 years|
Some legal matters have different rules when it comes to lawsuits against a government agency or employee. The North Carolina State Tort Claim Act applies the same statute of limitations for a lawsuit against the government as for a private person or company.
As soon as you’ve been injured.
Three years might sound like a long time, but things can move slowly within the legal system. Whether you’re able to reach a settlement or need to go to trial, if you have medical or other expenses that need to be paid, you want to get your money as soon as possible.
If there are any circumstances around your claim that might affect the length of the statute of limitations, your lawyer will advise you on how to proceed. You can start now by using the free Enjuris personal injury directory to find a North Carolina lawyer who can help.