Time Limits for Filing a Wrongful Death Claim

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jun 19, 2018

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Every state has a limit on the amount of time a person has to file a wrongful death lawsuit in court. The length of time can vary, from one year to as long as three years. This time limit is called the statute of limitations. If you do not file your wrongful death action on time, you will be barred from filing it all together. The person suing must look at specific rules governing when the statute of limitations time begins to run. Sometimes the time runs from the death itself, but sometimes it runs from the time that the cause of death was discovered (which could be later).

When the Clock Starts

Consider the following examples illustrating when the clock begins to run on a wrongful death lawsuit:

  • Suppose a death is ruled an accident and evidence of murder is not discovered for two years later. The state’s statute of limitations for wrongful death is one year. Is it too late for the family to sue the murderer? In many states, the statute of limitations will not begin to run until the time the evidence of murder is discovered. This is sometimes called the “discovery” rule. In our example, the family would have a year after the discovery of the murder to bring the lawsuit. Since calculations of the correct statute of limitations time period are complicated, and since a claim will be lost forever if it isn’t brought within the time limit, it is always advisable to consult with an experienced wrongful death attorney who is familiar with the law of the state where the death occurred as soon as possible after a wrongful death is discovered. See How a Wrongful Death Lawyer Can Help You for more information.
  • In some states, the statute of limitations for wrongful death becomes even more complicated if the deceased doesn’t die right away. If the deceased is injured and has a claim for personal injury, the deceased usually must comply with his or her state’s statute of limitations for personal injury. For example, suppose a man is injured in an automobile accident, lives for just over two years, and never brings an action for personal injury. He then dies of complications from his injuries. If his state has a two-year statute of limitations for personal injuries, that period will have already run before he died, and in some states, he will already have given up any rights he has to file a lawsuit for damages from the accident. In such a case, his family will not be able to bring a wrongful death action because the claim has expired.
  • Some states also have special laws that apply to cases where a person has been killed by a faulty or dangerous product. In those states, the statute of limitations time period begins to run at the time of death, even if the family of the deceased didn’t know that the product caused the death or that the product was faulty or dangerous.

Time limits for filing a wrongful death lawsuit can vary from state to state, and the types and amounts of damages that are recoverable can vary greatly as well. If you are contemplating filing a wrongful death action, it is wise to consult with an experienced wrongful death attorney right away to evaluate your case and help you avoid missing the deadline for filing your lawsuit.

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Additional Resources

Check out the following articles for more information about wrongful death, filing a wrongful death lawsuit and finding an experienced wrongful death attorney.

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