Statute of Limitations – Accidents in North Carolina

What is a Statute of Limitations?

A ‘statute of limitations’ is a law that halts a claim after a specified period of time has expired. More specifically, a ‘statute of limitations’ related to personal injury establishes a time limit for an individual to file a lawsuit for an accident in which they sustained injuries, based on the date when those injuries occurred or when they were discovered.

If you have been injured in North Carolina, you must file a lawsuit by a defined deadline that has been set by North Carolina statute. It is important to note that different states and causes of action have different deadlines for presenting a lawsuit.

It is generally thought that the purpose for the existence of the statute of limitations is to compel conscientious prosecution of known claims, thereby ensuring that claims will be expeditiously brought forth while evidence is fresh and witnesses are still available. Basically, the statute motivates all parties involved to investigate the claim while it is still recent in order to ensure fairness and efficiency in resolving the matter.

Generally speaking, in North Carolina the statute of limitations for a personal injury claim resulting from a car accident is three (3) years from the date of injury. See N.C. Gen. Stat. § 1-52.

For example, if you were in a car accident on 3/5/2014, you must file a lawsuit or resolve your claim before 3/6/2017. If you do not file a lawsuit within the window provided by the statute of limitations, the statute of limitations will bar your claim for damages. This would effectively mean that you would not be allowed to recover any money from the at-fault party.

While you may have a three-year period in which to present your claim, it is extremely important that you pursue your claim for damages as soon as possible so that details of the accident stay cohesive and no evidence is compromised. The consequences for failing to understand and appreciate this law can be serious.

How Does a Statute of Limitations Toll?

When a cause of action arises (when a party is wronged or injured), a prospective plaintiff has a set period of time within which to bring his or her claim.  “Tolling” refers to the deadline for bringing the claim.  The lawsuit must be initiated by filing a complaint before the applicable statute of limitations is tolled, or the plaintiff’s right to recovery will be lost forever. Tolling is most commonly discussed in cases in which a minor child has been injured. As a result of their adolescence, the law permits the statute of limitations to pause until the child has reached the age of majority or adulthood (typically 18 years of age) or has been emancipated by a court of competent jurisdiction.

Given that ‘tolling’ halts the running on the statute of limitations because of the imposition of a certain condition such as being a minor child or having a mental disability, the amount of time that statute is tolled in a case is not counted towards the period in time in which a claim must be asserted under the applicable statute of limitations. The practical consequence of this tolling is that the deadline in which to file a claim is moved.

Is the Statute of Limitations Deadline Set in Stone?

The simple answer is that any statute of limitations deadline is dependent upon the facts related to when the injuries were actually sustained. However, because the statute of limitations is factually dependent, it could be possible for the parties to disagree as to the actual date on which the injuries occurred. Therefore, it is always advisable to present your claim as soon as you are able with fresh evidence.

Applicable Statute of Limitations in North Carolina

The following presents a general guide to the statutes of limitations for various types of cases that may occur in or out of the use of a motor vehicle:

Personal Injury – 3 years (from date of injury)

Under N.C. Gen. Stat § 1-52(16), the statute of limitations for a personal injury claim is three years from the date of injury (or three years from when the injury ought to have become apparent). However, no cause of action may accrue more than 10 years after the defendant’s last act or omission giving rise to claim. See Soderlund v. Kuch, 143 N.C. App. 361, 546 S.E.2d 632, review denied, 353 N.C. 729, 551 S.E.2d 438 (2001).

N.C. Gen. Stat. §1-52(16) states that “[u]nless otherwise provided by law, for personal injury or physical damage to claimant’s property, the cause of action, except in causes of actions referred to in G.S. 1-15(c), shall not accrue until bodily harm to the claimant or physical damage to his property becomes apparent or ought reasonably to have become apparent to the claimant, whichever event first occurs. Except as provided in G.S. 130A-26.3, no cause of action shall accrue more than 10 years from the last act or omission of the defendant giving rise to the cause of action.”

Damage to Personal Property

Under N.C. Gen. Stat § 1-52(16), the statute of limitations for damage to personal property claim is three years from the date of damage (or three years from when the damage ought to have become apparent). See Barwick v. Celotex Corp., 736 F.2d 946 (4th Cir. 1984)

N.C. Gen. Stat. §1-52(16) states that “[u]nless otherwise provided by law, for personal injury or physical damage to claimant’s property, the cause of action, except in causes of actions referred to in G.S. 1-15(c), shall not accrue until bodily harm to the claimant or physical damage to his property becomes apparent or ought reasonably to have become apparent to the claimant, whichever event first occurs. Except as provided in G.S. 130A-26.3, no cause of action shall accrue more than 10 years from the last act or omission of the defendant giving rise to the cause of action.”

Wrongful Death – Two Years (from date of death)

Under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 1-53(4) the statute of limitations for a wrongful death claim is two years from the date of death. More specifically, N.C. Gen. Stat. §1-53(4) states that “[w]ithin two years [a]ctions for damages on account of the death of a person caused by the wrongful act, neglect or fault of another under G.S. 28A-18-2; the cause of action shall not accrue until the date of death.”

However, if the deceased would have been barred, had he lived, from bringing an action for bodily harm, as a result of N.C. GEN. STAT. § 1-15(c) or 1-52 (16), no action for his death may be brought. See Sturdivant v. Andrews, 161 N.C. App. 177, 587 S.E.2d 34, cert. denied, cert. dismissed, 358 N.C. 242, 594 S.E.2d 34 (2004).

Personal Injury Claims and Minors 

Minor children’s claims for personal injuries are treated very differently in North Carolina than that of their adult counterparts. Specifically, the statute of limitations for a minor’s claim is tolled or halted until that minor reaches the age of majority (or eighteen years old), at which time the statute of limitations on their claim begins to run.

Pursuant to N.C. Gen. Stat. § 1-17(a), “[a] person entitled to commence an action who is under a disability at the time the cause of action accrued may bring his or her action within the time limited in this Subchapter, after the disability is removed[.] Moreover, the claim must be brought within three years after the removal of the disability, and at no time thereafter.”

For the purpose of N.C. Gen. Stat. § 1-17(a), a person is under a ‘disability’ if a person meets one or more of the following conditions:

(1) The person is under the age of 18 years.
(2) The person is insane.
(3) The person is incompetent as defined in G.S. 35A-1101(7) or (8).

Guardian Ad Litem and Minors

It is important to understand that minor children are able to present claims before they reach the age of majority with the appointment of a guardian ad litem, commonly referred to as a GAL. The term ‘ad litem’ is Latin and means “for the suit.” Therefore, a guardian ad litem means that an individual serves as legal guardian of a child or disabled person, as defined by N.C. Gen. Stat. § 1-17(a), for the purposes of presenting and litigating the matter for which the guardian has been appointed.

While we will we certainly discuss the appointment of a guardian ad litem in other articles, podcasts, and videos, it is essential to understand that the appointment of a GAL has a direct effect on the statute of limitations for a claim. More specifically, if a GAL has been appointed, the statute of limitations no longer tolls (or pauses) but rather begins to run on the minor’s claims. However, where a minor does not have a GAL, the statute of limitations will not run. Additionally, a parent’s presentation of the minor’s claim, without a validly appointed GAL, will not cause the statute of limitations to begin running. See Simmons v. Justice, 87 F. Supp. 2d 524, 529 (W.D.N.C. 2000) which expressly notes that even though the complaint alleges that the parent was the minor’s “biological father, legal custodian and guardian,” the parent was not the GAL, and hence the statute of limitations did not expire.


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