What Is the Time Limit for Filing a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?

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Losing a loved one due to the negligence of someone else is always a tragic and heartbreaking situation. In addition to causing immense emotional pain, an untimely death can leave a family with overwhelming financial burdens, including funeral costs, unpaid medical expenses, and loss of income and insurance.

Although compensation for a wrongful death can never bring a loved one back, it can help reduce the stress caused by unforeseen expenses. Many individuals, though, delay pursuing civil action while they are coping with their grief, only to discover later that they waited too long and are thus ineligible to file a lawsuit.

If you have lost a loved one due to another’s negligence, call Zinda Law Group at (800) 863-5312 for a free case evaluation with experienced wrongful death attorneys.

What is the Statute of Limitations?

The statute of limitations is the legal time limit in which you are permitted to bring about a certain legal claim. Different types of legal claims have different statutes of limitations. Further, each state has different statutes of limitations for each type of legal claim as well. Although many states place similar statutes of limitations on certain crimes, each state handles these statutes in their own way. Time can be one of your biggest enemies when trying to secure legal compensation for the death of a loved one; thus it is always important to check that the statute says for your specific state and specific claim.

How Long Do I Have to File?

The time limit, known as a statute of limitations, for filing a wrongful death lawsuit varies from state to state. In many states, a spouse, child, or parent of the deceased must file their wrongful death lawsuit within two years of the victim’s passing. There are, however, a few exceptions:

  • The Discovery Rule – The clock doesn’t begin on the statute of limitations until the party bringing suit discovers, or with reasonable diligence should have discovered, the victim’s passing. Moreover, if the victim was killed because of negligence that was uncovered only after the statute of limitations lapsed, the family may still be eligible to file suit.
  • Minors – Children under the age of 18 are not allowed to bring a case to court. However, if the victim’s child was a minor at the time the death occurred, they may be allowed to file a wrongful death lawsuit within two years after their 18th birthday, even if the original statute of limitations has expired.
  • Extensions – Statutes of limitations are taken very seriously by courts; therefore, it is uncommon for them to be disregarded by a judge. There are some instances, though, when a lawyer can successfully appeal to have them set aside, in what is known as a motion to toll the statute of limitations. The most common exception is when another party is responsible for ongoing delays in the case.

The law regarding statute of limitations may be different in your state, so it is best to check with your local bar association or call us for a free consultation about your case.

When does the Clock Start?

In a typical personal injury lawsuit, the clock starts ticking the second you are injured, not when you decide you want to sue for those injuries. However, wrongful death suits are a little bit different and are often handled with a bit more leniency depending on the circumstances. The clock starts ticking on a wrongful death action once the party bringing the suit has discovered, or should have discovered with reasonable diligence, the cause of death of the victim.

This could mean that the clock starts ticking the very day someone has died if the cause of the misconduct is obvious. It could also mean the clock starts ticking months later after new evidence about the victim’s death has been discovered.

Tolling the Clock

Courts often do not grant much leeway in extending them. This is because although the statute is by it’s nature a limitation, it often still provides multiple years for you to file a lawsuit against the responsible party. Therefore, courts assume that if you had years in which to make a claim, but chose not to, there is no reason you should be permitted to now.

Additionally, these rules are in place for a reason. Evidence is fresh, and memories are more accurate the closer you are to an event. Therefore courts try to cap the amount of time you have to bring a legal claim in order to make sure they are dealing with the best possible evidence and witness’. Thus, you should treat these time limits as a hard deadline to follow.

However, there are some rare situations in which an attorney can advocate for the time limits to be set aside. This is known as a motion to toll the statute of limitations. Once the statute has been tolled, the ticking clock on your legal claim is paused until a certain condition is met or a certain event takes place to start the clock again. Here a few of the situations that warrant tolling of the clock:

  • The other party has caused multiple ongoing delays
  • The diminished legal capacity of a party
  • Delayed discovery of harm
  • Fraudulent concealment of evidence by the opposing party

What Happens when there is a Delay in the Discovery of Cause of Death?

As mentioned briefly above, the clock starts running on a wrongful death claim when the plaintiff discovers the cause of death of another person or should have discovered the cause of death with reasonable due diligence. Many states feel that this is appropriate for wrongful death suits because often the statutory limitation would place a bar on bringing suit before a reasonable person could even discover what happened to their loved one. This would not be fair. Thus, when there is a delay in the discovery of the cause of a loved one’s death, the legal time limits may be extended.

States may only extend the statute of limitations on a wrongful death claim if you can show that although the statute has expired, you have used due diligence to determine the cause of death and are now ready to proceed with your claim at a later time. The words “due diligence” are very important in this situation. A court may not extend the statutory limit on a wrongful death action in situations where a plaintiff has neglected to determine the details behind the death of a loved one.

The limitation on your claim will only be extended where you can show that you have taken reasonable steps to investigate and determine the cause of death, but that your investigation has taken an extended period of time beyond what you expected.

Time Limits and Children

As a general rule, children or minors under the age of 18 are not allowed to file legal claims. However, there is an exception to this rule. When it comes to wrongful death suits, there is some wiggle room in whether or not a minor can sue on their loved one’s behalf. If the deceased individual has a child under the age of 18 at the time of their death, the child may be permitted to bring about a wrongful death action within two years of their 18th birthday. This exception applies even if the original time limit on the claim has expired before that time period.

Exceptions to the Rule

By now, you are aware that even though the statute of limitations in your state is an important deadline to follow, there are a few exceptions that may warrant its extension. These exceptions may include:

  • claims made by minors,
  • claims that have been intentionally delayed by the opposing party,
  • diminished legal capacity of a party, and
  • delays in discovery

Most states will also place an exception on the statute that do not count anytime you spent on active military duty toward the statutory period for your claim.

In addition to these exceptions, certain states have designated certain categories of civil claims to have an extended statutory period in which to bring about a lawsuit. Claims such as childhood sexual abuse, for example, can be brought within a much more extended period of time than other types of claims due to the nature of that type of claim itself. However, it is important to make clear once again that every state is different.

It is always important to check what your specific state has to say about how long you have to file on certain claims and if there are any exceptions to the general rules that your state tends to allow for.

Why is the Statute of Limitations so Important?

These laws are arguably one of the most important parts of any legal claim. This is because it can often be the there very thing that decides whether or not you can seek compensation after the death of a loved one. Unless you have a valid excuse, courts take the statute of limitations as a firm deadline on your ability to seek compensation. If you do not file a claim within your state’s designated time limit on your specific type of claim, you will most likely be barred from ever making a claim.

Our Wrongful Death Attorneys Can Help

At Zinda Law Group, our nationwide wrongful death lawyers understand the heavy toll a wrongful death can take on a family. Our attorneys have a wide range of experience in handling these complex cases, and we are dedicated to not only helping you seek the full compensation you deserve but also extending care and compassion to you and your family in your time of need.

If you have lost a loved one in an accident, call Zinda Law Group at (800) 863-5312 to receive a free consultation with experienced and compassionate wrongful death lawyers.

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Recommended Reading:

How Do I Know If I Have a Wrongful Death Case?

Do I Need a Lawyer for My Wrongful Death Case?

How to Calculate the Value of Your Wrongful Death Claim