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How Long Do You Have to File Wrongful Death

Wrongful death occurs when someone dies due to the preventable actions of another. These actions may be reckless, such as speeding; negligent, such as a company's inadequate warning of potential dangers of a product; or deliberate, such as murder. Family members may file a civil lawsuit to collect damages to compensate them for the emotional and financial impacts of the death.

If you believe someone wrongfully caused your loved one's death, it is important to get help right away—you have a limited time within which to file a wrongful death suit.

Wrongful Death Statutes of Limitations

Each state has its own statutes of limitations for bringing various types of lawsuits. The time limit in which to file a wrongful death suit is generally between one and three years; in many states, it is two years after death occurs.

If you do not file suit within the allowed time, you will not be able to recover damages. But the clock does not always start ticking at death. Sometimes the clock can be reset by the discovery of new information, such as:

  • Death is ruled from natural causes, but evidence of medical malpractice comes to light years later.
  • Someone deliberately concealed important information about the cause of death.
  • Use of products that were later found to be defective.

In these cases, the clock may start at the time of the new discovery, although not all states agree. Some states specifically exclude dangerous or defective products from resetting the clock.

The statute of limitations may also depend on whom you are naming as a defendant. For example, in Illinois, naming a municipality as a defendant cuts the statute of limitations—normally two years—to just one year.

When Death Occurs Long After Injury

When a person survives an injury, only to die of complications related to that injury years later, you may be out of luck on filing a wrongful death claim. Because the person initially survived, the incident falls under personal injury statutes of limitation. If that time—usually one to six years depending on the state—has passed, the right to damages is forfeited. The later occurrence of death does not reset the clock or turn the case into a wrongful death claim, and surviving family members have no rights to wrongful death damages.

If you believe a loved one has died because of negligence or deliberate actions by a person or a company, it is important to speak with a personal injury attorney as soon as possible. It takes time to put together a strong case, and many lawyers will not accept your case if there is only a short time before the statute of limitations runs out.