They say that “Time and tide wait for no man,” and this saying certainly applies to personal injury claims. In the context of a personal injury action, as soon as the accident occurs, a legislatively-created clock begins to run, giving plaintiffs a time frame with which to bring an action. That time frame is called the statute of limitations. The statute of limitations varies depending on the type of action (i.e. criminal, contract, personal injury) and the jurisdiction. For purposes of a Pennsylvania personal injury action, the statute of limitations is two years. There are exceptions (such as a different time limitation for a minor’s case) but generally, a plaintiff must either resolve his claim with a defendant prior to the expiration of the two-year statute or take the appropriate action to avoid being time-barred.
What should a plaintiff do to avoid being barred by the statute of limitations? First and foremost, a plaintiff should figure out when his statute will expire and be proactive in calling an attorney if the claim warrants one. At Metzger Wickersham, the investigation into a case starts as soon as a client walks through our doors. The correct defendant must be located, witnesses must be interviewed, and photographs must be taken. A plaintiff who pursues legal action right away after an accident has the luxury of having more time to think before making case-changing decisions without the pressure of the statute of limitations narrowing those choices.
What happens if a claim isn’t settled before two years? In Pennsylvania, a plaintiff may file a writ of summons with a county’s Prothonotary. After the defendant is properly served with the writ, usually by a Pennsylvania sheriff, the statute of limitations is considered to be “tolled.” Once service is confirmed, then the statute of limitations is no longer a concern.
Why is there a statute of limitations at all? Mostly, to ensure fairness to the defendant. As time passes, witness memories fade and essential items for evidence may disappear. By imposing a time limitation, the courts are giving defendants the opportunity to investigate the circumstances associated with a plaintiff’s claim to form a defense. This opportunity may be lost if a plaintiff brings a claim many years after an accident occurs.
When deciding to take legal action against a negligent defendant, we recommend that you consult with an attorney as soon as possible to discuss what kind of steps are needed to pursue a personal injury claim.