Personal Injury Claims: Understanding the Statute of Limitations
Statutes of limitations are laws that determine how long a person can wait to bring a lawsuit after an incident that creates a legal claim. For example, if you are a party to a written contract governed by Colorado law and the other party violates the contract, the Colorado statute of limitations requires you to bring a lawsuit to enforce your agreement within three years after the breach. If you miss the 3-year deadline, you are prevented from ever making that legal claim.
Different Time Limits for Different Kinds of Claims
For personal injury cases, the time limits in Colorado are different depending on the type of claim the plaintiff has:
- Most claims involving negligence must be brought within two years after the accident or injury.
- Claims involving personal injury or property damage caused by a motor vehicle must be brought within three years after the accident or injury.
- Medical malpractice claims must be brought within two years after the plaintiff discovers his or her injury, but in no event can the claim be brought more than three years after the relevant medical procedure (subject to some exceptions that can extend the time period).
"Discovery Rule" Can Extend the Time Period
There are situations when a potential plaintiff does not know immediately that he has been injured or that a prior incident caused the injury.
For example, a passenger involved in a car accident may believe that he escaped the incident unscathed but may begin experiencing muscle pain, numbness and other health problems months or years later. It may take additional time to obtain medical exams and test results to confirm that the prior car accident is the reason for his health issues.
For this reason, the law recognizes the so-called "discovery rule" that extends a statute of limitations if a plaintiff was reasonably delayed in discovering his injury or its cause.
So, for example, if the normal car accident personal injury statute of limitations is three years, the discovery rule could allow a passenger involved in the accident to sue four years later if a court determines that the extra time he needed to discovery his injury and its cause is reasonable.
Medical Malpractice Discovery Rule
Medical malpractice cases have their own discovery rule.
Colorado law imposes a strict three-year deadline after a medical procedure to bring a claim, but a plaintiff has additional time if:
- The claim involves a foreign object left in the body of the patient (in which case the plaintiff has an additional two years to file suit after the foreign object is discovered or should reasonably have been discovered); and
- Both the physical injury and its cause are not known or could not have been known by the exercise of reasonable diligence.
Policy Reasons for Statutes of Limitations
There are several legitimate policy reasons why statutes of limitation exist:
- They encourage potential plaintiffs to be diligent about asserting their claims and to not "sit on their rights."
- Evidence is generally more reliable if it is produced sooner after an event than later.
- Witnesses are more likely to remember important details if less time has gone by.
- Physical evidence like handwritten notes and medical specimens are more likely to be in better condition if they have had less time to degrade or deteriorate.
- The laws prevent defendants from being subject to liability—or threats of lawsuits--indefinitely.
A Colorado Springs personal injury lawyer at Levine Law can help if you've been injured at work, in a car accident, or because of botched medical procedure or defective product. And our no/win, no/fee policy means that you pay nothing to Levine Law unless we recover damages or achieve a settlement for you. Contact us for a free consultation.