Statutes of Limitations: The Clock's Ticking!
Civil claims can take a vast variety of forms. Most of the claims I handle are based on negligence in the form of car accidents, slip-and-falls, landowner liability, et cetera, but there's also the intentional stuff like civil assault and battery, there's defamation, there's private nuisance, and the list goes on and on. The one common factor in every case is that civil claims are not immortal. They have a shelf life, and once that shelf life is over, your claim is finished. Since we lawyers can't use normal words like normal people, we call this the "statute of limitations."
Because of the relative wordiness of the term, I often refer to statutes of limitations as "SOLs." You get a gold star if you see what I did there. The SOL is the period of time in which you can either (i) assert your claim by settling or filing a lawsuit, or (ii) let your claim lapse. SOLs are different depending on what type of claim is at issue -- most of North Carolina's SOLs can be found here and here -- but the SOL for actions in negligence, like car accidents, is generally going to be three years from the date of the accident. So if you were injured by the negligence of another driver on January 1, 2021, you would need to settle your claim, file a lawsuit or decide to drop your claim on or before January 1, 2024. Pretty straightforward, right?
Here's the thing, though. Car accidents can be tricky because they often result in injuries to your back, your neck, or your head. The extent of those injuries -- or even the very existence of those injuries -- might not become apparent until months or years after the accident. It follows that you need to be super-vigilant in determining (i) whether you have injuries, (ii) what the extent of any injuries are, and (iii) when you need to file your claim. If you miss your SOL, you're out of luck.
My personal policy when I'm hired by a new client is to plug the accident date into our practice management software. The software automatically flags the SOL date, which assures that the claim will be settled or filed before the SOL runs. If you're handling your own claim, make sure the SOL date is well-preserved on whatever you use to set your calendar, whether it's your phone, your computer, your planner, or a Post-It note on the fridge. If there is any chance at all that you might run into difficulties identifying your proper defendant, like if the defendant is a corporation with a convoluted identity, my policy is to be filed or settled at least six months before the Statute runs. You surely don't want to wait to file until right before the SOL runs and sue the wrong defendant. If you do, you'll likely find yourself out of luck and barred from suing the proper party.
There are a couple of details that you should be aware of. Technically, the SOL for personal injury actions is three years from the date on which the injuries became apparent, or reasonably should have become apparent, to the plaintiff. In car accident cases, this is pretty much always going to be the date that the accident took place. Even if you didn't objectively know that you had injuries on that date, the law will generally assume that you reasonably should have known. In addition, minors are treated a little bit differently with regards to SOLs, and their clock typically won't start to tick until they reach the age of majority. Finally, you need to seek treatment immediately to determine whether you're injured. Major gaps in treatment will create major problems for your claim.
Next time we'll cover statutes of repose, which mostly crop up in construction-related cases. Be safe and give us a call with any questions!