How Is the Statute of Limitations Affected by Catastrophic Injuries?

If you have suffered a serious injury, you may be wondering, “how is the statute of limitations affected by catastrophic injuries?” The statute of limitations for a catastrophic injury begins from the time that the injured person discovers the injury. In a personal injury claim, the statute of limitations is two years from the time that the injury was suffered. However, catastrophic injuries can have some profound differences from a normal personal injury claim. Exceptions can be made to accommodate these differences.

What Is a Catastrophic Injury?

A catastrophic injury is a type of personal injury that is so severe it results in permanent harm to the victim.

A personal injury is a form of harm that you suffer to your body, mind, or emotions due to the actions or negligence of another. In law, if you have suffered a personal injury because of someone else’s actions, you are usually able to claim compensation from that person for the damages you suffered. A lawyer can help you understand who to sue after an elevator accident or other catastrophic accident.

Each year in the United States, about 31 million people require medical treatment for general injuries, with around 2 million people requiring hospitalization. Personal injuries are generally temporary or short-term. The victim can eventually recover and continue with his or her life as normal.

A catastrophic injury falls under the umbrella of personal injury, but is classed on its own due to the severity and consequences for the victim. Catastrophic injuries result in long-term emotional, financial, and physical repercussions. They are serious enough to permanently alter the victim’s quality of life. 

There are many potential causes of catastrophic injuries, including:

  • Motor vehicle accidents.
  • Workplace accidents, including construction injuries.
  • Sports injuries.
  • Medical malpractice.
  • Defective products.
  • Fall accidents.

Any injury can be catastrophic if it results in a long-term impact on the victim’s life. An injury is typically considered catastrophic if it prevents you from being able to return to work or continue with the same level of employment as before the accident. A catastrophic injury may leave you unable to physically care for yourself, leave you needing ongoing care, or create the need for medical devices, such as a wheelchair. Your injury is likely to be considered catastrophic if you have had to modify your home or vehicle to accommodate your injuries, or if your spouse has had to give up a job to care for you.

While any injury can be considered catastrophic depending on the long-term impact, there are several injuries that are almost always catastrophic by nature.

Brain Injuries

A brain injury occurs when someone suffers a severe blow to the head. This can cause bruising and damage to parts of the brain that can impact function. Each year in the United States, more than 1.5 million people suffer traumatic brain injuries.

A traumatic brain injury might lead to difficulty with talking or understanding language, depression or anxiety, and an inability or reduced ability to use limbs. It can lead to impaired reasoning and cognitive function, such as confusion, reduced concentration, and attention.

Spinal Cord Injuries

Spinal cord injuries result from the spinal cord being damaged, preventing the nerves responsible for transmitting the signals between the brain and limbs from operating effectively. Depending on where the injury occurs on the spinal cord, there may be a loss of use of all limbs, arms, or legs. Functioning of the lungs, gastrointestinal systems, and urinary tract might also be negatively impacted.

Tetraplegia, paraplegia, or incomplete motor function can result from spinal cord injuries. Tetraplegia leaves a person unable to move limbs and upper and lower parts of his or her body. It may include the head, neck, and shoulders, although not always. Paraplegia is where the legs and sometimes parts of the lower abdomen are paralyzed, but the arms still function. Incomplete motor function is where there is a partial loss of control and sensation in the body below the location of the injury on the spinal cord.

Annually in the United States, there are approximately 17,000 new spinal cord injury cases. Spinal cord injuries cost victims $42,000 to $184,000 per year.


Burns can range from minor injuries to catastrophic, depending on the severity. Burn injuries are given classifications as first-, second-, third- or fourth-degree, depending on the depth of penetration into the skin. First-degree burns are superficial. Second-degree burns are partial thickness, leaving red, blistered, swollen, and painful skin. Third-degree burns are full thickness. They look either white or blackened, and go to the inmost layer of the skin. Fourth-degree burns are the deepest, going to underlying tissue below the skin, possibly to muscle and bone. Burns can lead to scarring, disfigurement, and tremendous pain.


Amputation is the loss of a limb, either through serious trauma or surgical removal. Having a limb amputated can affect your ability to work or maintain your independence.

Vision or Hearing Loss

Vision and hearing loss can result from brain injuries or direct damage to the eyes or ears. To be catastrophic, the loss must be significant, although it does not have to be complete. Hearing or vision loss can result in difficulty communicating effectively, as well as reduce independence and quality of life.

Scarring and Disfigurement

A person’s appearance can be significantly and permanently affected by changes in skin texture, scarring, or a differently shaped body part. Scarring and disfigurement might result in emotional and psychological distress, loss of self-esteem, and might even lead to a loss of friends and potential partners.

What is the Statute of Limitations?

A statute of limitations imposes a set amount of time that you have to file legal action. Once the amount of time specified in the statute of limitations has passed, you lose your right to pursue compensation. The statute of limitations varies, depending on the type of lawsuit. In Illinois, all civil actions have a statute of limitations. The statute of limitations in Illinois for various injury claims is typically two years from the time that the injury was sustained in medical malpractice, product liability, or any other personal injury claim. For wrongful death, the statute of limitations starts running from the date of death. 

There are several reasons for a statute of limitations. As time goes on, it becomes increasingly difficult to prove your claim, because evidence becomes corrupted, lost, or deteriorates.

Exceptions to the Statute of Limitations

There are exceptions to the statute of limitations. While the statute of limitations is generally two years from the time of injury for most injury claims, there are times when you can bring a claim after this two-year period. In Illinois, these exceptions are:

  • If there is a legal disability at the time of the accident, you have two years to file the lawsuit from the time that the disability is removed.
  • Where a legal disability arises sometime during the two-year period after the accident, the deadline of the statute of limitations can be extended.
  • If a person is younger than 18 at the time of the injury, the statute of limitations only starts running from the time that the person turns 18. The person then has two years from the time he or she turns 18 to file a lawsuit.
  • If the person who caused the injury left the state during the two-year period that the statute of limitations was running after the accident, and before the lawsuit was filed, exceptions apply. The period of absence is usually not counted as part of the two years.
  • If the victim was not aware of an injury. In this case, the two years start running from the time that the person became aware of, or should have become aware of, the injury.

How Is the Statute of Limitations Affected by Catastrophic Injuries?

Catastrophic injuries can create their own difficulties for a victim. Because of the scale of the trauma that they can place on the body, they might cause a victim to undergo medical treatment that prevents contact with others. They may also cause a coma, or cause some form of disability, either permanent or temporary.

In the aftermath of a serious injury, it might not be possible for a victim to file a lawsuit for catastrophic injuries due to incapacity. Even if the person is conscious, it may not be feasible for him or her to consider filing a lawsuit during intense periods of medical treatment and recovery. In these circumstances, the statute of limitations might stop entirely until the victim is mentally competent enough to file a lawsuit. A judge may need to decide when the person was able to file a lawsuit again, and from what date the statute of limitations begins running. A catastrophic injury lawyer will have to petition the court to extend the statute of limitations, not only until the victim is able to file a lawsuit, but to give enough time to investigate the claim fully due to the special circumstances.

Chicago personal injury and workers’ compensation attorney Howard Ankin has a passion for justice and a relentless commitment to defending injured victims throughout the Chicagoland area. With decades of experience achieving justice on behalf of the people of Chicago, Howard has earned a reputation as a proven leader in and out of the courtroom. Respected by peers and clients alike, Howard’s multifaceted approach to the law and empathetic nature have secured him a spot as an influential figure in the Illinois legal system.

Years of Experience: More than 30 years
Illinois Registration Status: Active
Bar & Court Admissions: Illinois State Bar Association, U.S. District Court, Northern District of Illinois, U.S. District Court, Central District of Illinois
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