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The North Carolina Statute of Limitations for Personal Injury, Explained

The statute of limitations is one of the most important things to understand when you’re embarking on a personal injury case. It’s likely one of the first things your experienced personal injury attorney will talk about as you get started.

In North Carolina, the general rule is that you have three years to file a lawsuit for most personal injury cases. However, it’s important to understand that the statute of limitations is more complex than a simple time limit, and can even give you a false sense of security about how much time you really have to pursue fair compensation for your personal injury claim.

Keep reading to grasp how the statute of limitations works in North Carolina personal injury cases, as well as how a lawyer can improve your chances to obtain full and fair financial compensation.

What is a Statute of Limitations?

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Every state, and every kind of civil legal case, has a statute of limitations. This is the time limit you have for filing a lawsuit.

For example, say you were injured in a car crash that someone else caused. At first, you may try to negotiate a settlement directly with the insurance company, out of court. However, if the insurer won’t agree to provide the compensation you need, you may file a personal injury lawsuit. This makes your personal injury claim a court matter, which could potentially result in a trial.

That lawsuit must be filed before the statute of limitations has expired. If you wait too long, the insurance company will request that the court automatically dismiss your case. They also won’t be interested in negotiating or paying your claim outside of court either, since you no longer have any legal recourse against them.

The statute of limitations varies by state and case type, but usually it’s somewhere between one and six years. As noted above, North Carolina’s statute of limitations for personal injury claims is three years.

When Does the Clock Start Running?

The countdown to three years begins when the bodily harm is (or should be) apparent to the injured person.

In most cases, that means the same day as your injury. If you’ve been in a car crash, slip and fall, or other incident, there’s usually no mystery about when and why you’ve been injured.

However, in some cases the injured individual has no way to know that they’ve been harmed until a long time after the initial incident or exposure. For example, you might have developed an illness due to taking unsafe medications or exposure to toxins you didn’t know were present. In these cases, the rule of discovery might apply—more details about that can be found below.

Exceptions to North Carolina’s Personal Injury Statute of Limitations

Certain situations can delay the start of the three-year countdown, or even pause the clock temporarily. In North Carolina, those situations include:

  • The injured person is a minor child. In this case, the three-year clock does not begin counting down until the child reaches age 18. (In other words, they can file a lawsuit anytime up to their 21st birthday.) However, the parent’s claim for medical bills related to the minor’s treatment is still subject to the three-year statute of limitations. 
  • The injured person is considered incompetent under North Carolina law. This means they are unable to manage their own affairs or make important decisions. This could be for any number of reasons, including as mental illness, intellectual disability, disease, injury, or similar causes or conditions. The clock will start counting down only when they are considered sane or competent.
  • The person who allegedly caused the injury resides outside of North Carolina—or is continuously absent from the state for one year or more—after the incident and before a lawsuit is filed. In this case, the period of the alleged defendant’s absence might not be counted toward the statute of limitations. However, it’s not wise to rely on getting this exception.

Working with a personal injury attorney will ensure you know exactly where your case falls on this timeline.

Rule of Discovery

As noted above, the discovery rule is another potential exception to the typical statute of limitations.

It’s possible for a claimant to not know about their injury, or the source of it, until after the three-year time limit has passed. If so, they may still be able to file a claim under the rule of discovery.

The rule of discovery isn’t likely to apply after a car crash, dog bite, or other obvious accident. Situations where it’s more likely to be used are:

  • Medical malpractice
  • Dangerous or defective products
  • Exposure to toxic chemicals

If you think the rule of discovery applies to your case, speak to a personal injury attorney right away. They’ll know how to present your injuries or illness in a way that gives you the best chance for full compensation.

There are a few important things to note about the rule of discovery that you should be aware of, however:

  • An exception will not be granted if the court believes a reasonable person in your situation would have discovered the other party’s negligent actions more than three years ago. In other words, you can’t simply claim ignorance and extend the timeline indefinitely.
  • There is an absolute maximum length of time that you can file a lawsuit after an injury incident, regardless of when it was discovered. This is called the statute of repose, and in North Carolina it is 10 years for personal injury claims.

North Carolina Statute of Limitations for Other Case Types

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Not all types of civil cases necessarily have the same statute of limitations as personal injury cases. Here are a few examples of different kinds of cases, and how long you have to file a lawsuit.

Wrongful Death Lawsuit

Families of someone killed by another’s reckless or negligent actions have two years from the date of death to file a lawsuit for a wrongful death claim. Note that this is not necessarily the same as the date of the accident; a victim could survive for days, months, or even years before ultimately dying as a result of another person’s negligence.

Myers Law Firm is here to help you with wrongful death cases and lawsuits. Our team will help you navigate through this challenging process with compassion.

RELATED: How Wrongful Death Lawsuits Work in North Carolina

Product Liability Lawsuit

If you’re injured by a recalled product, or one that should have been recalled, you may be able to file a defective product (or product liability) lawsuit. This comes with the same three-year statute of limitations as a standard personal injury case.

However, if the product didn’t cause the problem until years later, you have up to 12 years from the date of purchase to file the lawsuit.

Workers’ Compensation Claim

If you’ve been injured while on the job, you have 30 days to notify your employer about your work-related injury, and up to two years to file a workers’ compensation claim with your direct employer.

Note that if you are covered by workers’ compensation, you are entitled to receive benefits regardless of who was responsible for the injury, but you will not be allowed to sue your employer even if they were at fault.

If your work injury was caused by a negligent third party that is not your direct employer, the regular three-year time limit for personal injury lawsuits would apply to any claim you bring against them. For example, if you are injured on a construction site, you might have a liability claim against the site owner, a general contractor, or other party other than your direct employer.

Medical Malpractice Claims

If you are injured because of medical malpractice, you have three years from the date of injury to file a lawsuit.

However, it’s relatively common for victims of medical malpractice to be unaware of their injuries (or what caused them) right away, as we discussed in the section about the rule of discovery. In these cases, the statute of limitations is extended to four years.

Let us help you.


Talk to a Personal Injury Lawyer Sooner Rather than Later

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No matter what the statute of limitations is for your case, it’s in your best interest to talk to an attorney sooner rather than later.

You’ll need to gather evidence, calculate how much compensation you need, and build a strong case, just to mention a few important steps. That takes time. And if you wait even a few weeks to reach out to an attorney, some of the evidence needed to prove your case may already be gone, or much more difficult to obtain.

An experienced personal injury lawyer will know how to move things along effectively. The sooner you reach out to them, the sooner they can get to know you and your story and give you the best chance for full and fair compensation.

Please understand that the statute of limitations is the deadline for filing a lawsuit, not contacting a law firm. It’s not uncommon for injured people to spend months or even years on their case before filing a lawsuit, in order to build the best possible case and chance at recovery. It is heartbreaking to have to turn away injury victims because they waited too long and there is no longer enough time to build a winning case for them.

RELATED: Compensation Explained: What Can I Receive From My Injury Case

Contact Myers Law Firm Today

Knowing the statute of limitations is only the beginning. Because every personal injury case is different, you deserve to work with a legal team who will represent you attentively and with compassion.

With more than 60 years of combined experience, the attorneys of Myers Law Firm thoroughly understand North Carolina law and how to help their clients. Call us at (888) 376-2889 or complete this short form to schedule a free consultation.


N.C.G.S. § 1-17

N.C.G.S. § 1-21

N.C.G.S. § 35A-1101(7)

The content provided here is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice on any subject.

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