A recent survey by the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System (IAALS) reveals more than 100 million cases are filed each year in state trial courts, with about 400,000 cases filed in federal trial courts. If you have been injured and want to sue to recover the damages from the party responsible, you need to be aware of statutes of limitations or time frames placed at both the state and federal levels. This guide provides all essential information on the statute of limitations and how they impact your case.
What Is a Statute of Limitations?
A statute of limitations refers to a law that establishes the amount of time that conflicting parties have to commence litigation from the time of an alleged offense, whether criminal or civil cases. The length of time the statute allows for the plaintiff to bring legal action against the defender varies from one state to another and the nature of the offences. While Rhode Island provides the most lenient statutes of limitations spanning ten years for most cases, Louisiana has the shortest time frame for legal action, which is only one year except in cases related to contract law.
What Are the Purposes of Statutes of Limitations?
There are three reasons why statutes of limitations are essential. These include:
- Ensure reasonable diligence: Statutes of limitations guarantee lawsuits are dealt with promptly. If you intend to file a lawsuit against another person for an injury or claim, you should pursue the lawsuit within reasonable diligence. This means that you should file the lawsuit as soon as is reasonably possible.
- Preserve facts and evidence: People’s memories fade and become less reliable over time. Statutes of limitations ensure the facts surrounding the lawsuits don’t become stale or unclear. Where the evidence of a case is based on a person’s memory, waiting for too long before one initiates a lawsuit may result in memory loss, conflicting testimony, and inaccuracies. Additionally, a person holding critical information may forget the facts, become incapacitated, or pass away if you wait for too long to file a lawsuit.
- Prevents malicious lawsuits: Statutes of limitations also prevent people from filing long, drawn-out lawsuits on stale claims merely for harassment purposes.
Common Statutes of Limitations in Civil Cases
If your case falls under the following categories, you will likely be subjected to a statute of limitations. It is crucial to investigate both at the state and federal levels to establish the statute’s duration and how it specifically applies to you. Common statutes in civil law include:
- Personal injury due to negligence or intentional wrongdoing: The statute of limitations in personal injury cases ranges from as short as one year to as long as six years, depending on the state.
- Breach of a written or oral contract: Written contracts generally have a longer statute of limitations, whereas oral contracts will have shorter limitation periods. Most states have in place a statute of limitations ranging between 3 to 15 years for a breach of contract.
- Property damage from negligence or intentional wrongdoing: In most states, the statute of limitations on property damage claims is three years.
- Debts: In most states, the statutes of limitations for long-drawn debts fall in the three to six-year range. However, this may extend for a longer period in some jurisdictions, depending on the type of debt.
- Medical malpractice: In most states, medical malpractice claims have a statute of limitations of three years. However, if the medical malpractice case involves the minor, the lawsuit must be commenced within three years of the alleged wrongful act or if the minor is under the age of six, before their eighth birthday.
- Libel and slander: For most states, the statute of limitations for defamation suits is one to three years, depending on the state.
- Fraud and misrepresentations: The fraud and the breach of fiduciary duty statute of limitations are generally four years. However, this can extend depending on the nature of the case and the jurisdiction.
Do Statutes of Limitations Apply to Criminal Cases?
Criminal offenses can also have statutes of limitations. However, cases related to severe crimes, such a murder, don’t have a maximum period under a statute of limitations. Some states also remove limitations of sex crimes involving juveniles or violent crimes like arson or kidnapping. Additionally, under the International Law, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide don’t have a statute of limitations, in accordance with Article 29 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and the Convention on the Non-Applicability of Statutory Limitations to Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes.
When Does the Statute of Limitations Clock Start Running and How Does It Affect My Case?
Essentially, the clock starts running on the date the crimes are committed. Should the time limit expire before criminal proceedings begin, your claim may be denied. Also, waiting too long to file a lawsuit may make it hard for you to recover damages for your losses and injuries. However, for several states, the statute of limitations clock can be paused or tolled under some special circumstances. This means that the “clock” might not start running until the said issue is resolved.
What Happens If a Prosecutor Charges a Case Whose Statute of Limitation Periods Has Run Out?
Judges typically don’t take it upon themselves to review cases for possible deadline issues. Ideally, if the defendant doesn’t raise the limitations problems with the judge, the courts can allow a stale case to proceed. It is up to the defendants or their attorneys to raise the statute of limitations issue via a process referred to as “affirmative defense.” Affirmative defense allows the defendant to petition the court for dismissal of a case due to a violation of the statute of limitations.
Can the Statute of Limitations Clock Be Paused or Tolled?
Some circumstances allow for filing a personal injury suit even when the statute of limitations that applies to your case has lapsed. Some of the special circumstances that allow for the pausing or tolling of the limitations clock include:
The discovery rule is one of the few legal exceptions to statutes of limitations. Under the discovery rule, the statute of limitations for a cause of action does not begin to run until the injured party discovers an injury. This rule is one of the most effective tools used to suspend or toll the statute of limitations and ensure the clock won’t run until when an injury was discovered, rather than when it happened. However, even when the discovery rule applies, you should keep in mind there could be other bigger deadlines beyond which filing a lawsuit is prohibited.
Personal injury claims typically have a two-year statute of limitations. However, most states allow for injured minors to reach 18 before the statute of limitations laws start applying.
Out of the state
Most states have legislation that allows for statutes of limitations to be tolled when a defendant is absent from the state. If the cause of action accrues and begins to run and the defendant leaves the state while the limitations period is running and before it expires, the clock is suspended.
Statutes of limitations may also be tolled in scenarios where there are fraudulent concealments. Fraudulent concealment may occur if a defendant engages in a misleading, deceptive, or contrived action to prevent a plaintiff from recognizing a possible cause of action. This scenario can occur if the defendant fakes documents or lies to the plaintiff, intending to cause them to be unaware of the cause of action to take.
Statute of limitations could also be suspended due to disability that impairs a person from bringing forth a cause of action. Some specific examples of disability include:
- Where a victim may be a minor and may not be legally permitted to bring forth a case until he or she is an adult
- If a person has a medical condition such as cancer that makes him or her not competent to bring forth a cause of action
- If a person filed bankruptcy and may not be able to recover
In most states, the legal defense of insanity law means that a defendant cannot be found guilty of a crime if they were legally insane at the time they committed the crime. Once the tolling condition related to legal insanity ends, the statute of limitations begins to run.
What Is a Tolling Agreement and Why Is It Important?
Before you file a suit or initiate arbitrations, consider a crucial legal tool called a tolling agreement. A tolling agreement refers to written agreements that both parties to potential lawsuit signs and which effectively suspend the statute of limitations for an agreed amount of time. With the limitation period suspended, the parties are accorded enough time for fruitful negotiation and settlement of the dispute.
Some of the advantages that come with temporarily suspending the statute of limitation include:
Encourages Settling of the Case
A tolling agreement establishes an agreed deadline for parties to negotiate before the plaintiff file a suit to enforce their legal rights. Because both parties probably want to avoid trial, a tolling agreement puts pressure on both sides to settle the dispute.
Increases the Plaintiff’s Leverage
The threat of eventual litigation is a looming shadow that makes a tolling agreement such an effective tool. Potential plaintiffs can leverage this tool as an advantage by capitalizing on the defendant’s anxiety to settle for a reasonable amount that covers their damages.
Avoid Litigations Costs
In most cases, the anticipated economic costs of civil litigation cause a potential plaintiff to avoid acting on their rights. Defendants too are attentive to potential litigation costs, especially where they are likely to be held liable for damages suffered by the plaintiff. The mutual anxiety helps push parties to formally settle the matter.
Allows More Time to Think
The tolling agreement typically states the period that parties wish to suspend the statute of limitations. The buffer period allows both parties to think calmly on how best to reach a settlement. A plaintiff is typically accorded more time to consider their claim’s strengths and weaknesses. Similarly, the defendant is also given more time to build a solid defense or negotiate a resolution.
What Happens If I Never Know About the Injury Until After the Statute of Limitations Passed?
Some injuries may fail to manifest for weeks, months, or even years. If you discover the injury after the statute of limitations has passed, you may still file a lawsuit based on the delayed discovery rule. Delayed discovery is common in medical malpractice cases and several other types of personal injury lawsuits and provides for a longer statute of limitations in the following situations:
- If the plaintiff is not aware of the facts, that would have caused them to suspect they had suffered harm due to someone else’s negligence.
- If reasonable and diligent investigations would not have discovered a harmful product or situation contributed to the plaintiff’s harm.
Can I Do Anything After the Statutes of Limitations Have Passed?
If the statutes of limitations have passed, there could be other ways to seek compensation for your damages, which may include filing a claim under an alternative cause of action with a longer statute of limitations. Additionally, the statute of limitations could also be open if it tolled based on the victim’s age, the absence of the defendant from the state, or if the defendant was imprisoned or declared legally insane.
Talk to your personal injury attorney at Guardian Law Group about the statute of limitations in your case to make sure the claim is filed on time. Our personal injury lawyers may also be able to identify any exceptions to an expired statute of limitations.
Need Help Filing a Personal Injury Claim Within the Statute of Limitations? Call Us for Help.
Nearly all civil actions are subject to statutes of limitations. If you believe you might have a valid personal injury case after an accident, it’s crucial to pay attention to these deadlines. If you have questions about the statute of limitations and how it applies to your injury case, discuss your situation today with an experienced personal injury attorney at Guardian Law Group.