February 19, 2024

The Statute of Limitations for Personal Injury Cases in North Carolina 

There are very few deadlines that are truly fixed and unwavering in life—most of the time there is flexibility. But if you miss your deadline to file a lawsuit, it is game over. In this article we’ll discuss the various deadlines in North Carolina for personal injury cases.

What Even Is a Personal Injury Case?

A personal injury case arises when a person suffers physical injury due to someone else’s wrongful conduct. This wrongful conduct can range from a careless act, like a distracted driver causing a car accident, to an intentional act, such as an assault. It can also involve defects in products or dangerous conditions on someone’s property. In such cases, the injured person can file a personal injury lawsuit to seek compensation for the damages they’ve sustained.

At the heart of a personal injury case is the concept of negligence, which is the failure to behave with the level of care that an ordinary person in the same situation would have exercised. In simpler terms, it’s about holding accountable those whose carelessness caused harm to others.

For instance, imagine you’re at a local diner in Winston-Salem, and you slip and fall on a wet floor with no caution sign put up. If you are injured, you might have a personal injury case because the diner could be considered negligent for not properly warning you about or cleaning the danger caused by the wet floor.

The Basic Statute of Limitations

In the world of lawsuits, the term “statute of limitations” refers to the time frame within which a case must be filed. The state legislature has passed laws that give a fixed time before which these cases must be filed. For personal injury cases in North Carolina, this is generally three years from the date of the accident. This means if you’re involved in a car accident on July 1, 2024, you usually have until July 1, 2027, to file your case. But there are a bunch of situations that can change how long you actually have to file your case. Here are some common ones.

When The Injured Person Dies

The biggest modifier to the usual rule is whether the person died because of the accident. If they did, then that person’s family has only two years from the date of the death to bring a wrongful death claim. Picture a scenario where a construction worker from Rockingham County tragically dies in 2024 due to an accident on his way to the job site. His family would have until 2026 to seek legal redress.

When You Didn’t Discover Your Injury Until Later

Another modifier is what is called the “discovery rule.” Sometimes, you might not realize that you have been injured right away or might not know that another party’s negligence caused your injury. In such cases, the statute of limitations clock may not start ticking until you “discover” your injury. This usually arises in medical malpractice cases. For example, suppose a dermatologist with Novant Health in Wilkes County failed to diagnose skin cancer, but the failure to diagnose wasn’t discovered until two years later when a second dermatologist caught it. In this case, the statute of limitations would not start running until the missed diagnosis was discovered. (This example is totally made up—apologies to the dermatologists of Wilkes County who, we are sure, are lovely people).

When the Plaintiff is a Minor

If the injured person is under a “legal disability” when they are injured, the clock will not start running straight away. In this context, the term “legal disability” means something different than how we might ordinarily use that term. Here, it means someone who is prevented from being competent to bring a lawsuit for some reason. Often, this involves a person who is a child when their injury is sustained. Heads up, though, as of the date this is written, the law in North Carolina about when the clock starts running for an injured child is far from straight forward. If you’re considering a claim on behalf of your child, you definitely want to talk with a lawyer.

Claims Against the Federal Government

If the case involves the federal government, the rules change again. Under the Federal Tort Claims Act (called the FTCA), you have two years to file a claim against a federal government entity. Unlike typical personal injury cases, the FTCA also necessitates the submission of special form called Form 95, which the federal agency will review before any lawsuit can proceed.

When the Defendant Dies

While not technically a statue of limitation, there is also a different special rule that applies if the person who caused the injury (called the “tortfeasor”) dies. There is a limited period of time after the tortfeasor’s family opens their estate in which to present a claim—which is different than, but includes, filing a lawsuit. Let’s imagine a Rowan county resident caused an accident due to reckless driving and you’re injured in the accident. If the driver then passes away a few months later, you’ll have a limited amount of time from the date of their death to bring your claim. This situation highlights why knowing these rules can have a significant impact on your ability to seek justice.


Navigating the world of personal injury law in North Carolina can be complicated, but understanding the statute of limitations is key. Being informed allows you to approach your case strategically and confidently. The complex rules surrounding the statue of limitations also highlight why, more often than not, you should discuss your case with a personal injury attorney (we happen to know some). Don’t wait to start that process—many law firms have internal rules that prevent them from taking a case if the statute of limitations is near.

This information is provided by Harris Legal for general benefit, education, and interest. If you have a specific legal question, you should consult with an attorney.