Statutes of limitations are laws which specify the time limit for commencing a legal action, such as filing a civil suit or initiating prosecution of a criminal charge. In most types of cases the clock starts running when the event leading to the legal action occurred, such as the day of a car accident leading to an injury lawsuit, or the say a crime was committed. There are certain conditions and circumstances which can delay the date on which the time begins to be calculated. Time limits vary greatly depending on the types of case and from state to state.
When the statute of limitations is tolled, it is paused or put on hold. This can happen for various reasons depending on the type of case. For instance, the “discovery rule” applies in many types of personal injury cases and in some criminal cases. It delays the day the time limit starts to run until the day that the negligence or crime was either discovered or should have been discovered.
Tolling is used in some states to extend the deadline for injury victims who are minor children until they reach the age of majority and have the legal right to bring a lawsuit on their own behalf.
Contrary to popular belief, it is not always possible to avoid criminal prosecution by hiding out until the statute of limitations runs out. For Federal crimes the statute of limitations is tolled during any period of time that the defendant is a fugitive. Some states have laws which allow tolling under various circumstances, such as during any period of time that the defendant is living out-of-state.
Statutes of Repose
The statute of repose is another time limit which may apply to your case. It is more absolute than the statute of limitations and can cut your time short when you still well within the statute of limitations.
For instance, in cases of faulty construction if the statute of limitations for personal injury in your state is two years, and the statute of repose for claims against architects and engineers is six years after the completion of work, your injury could occur well after the statute of repose has expired and even though your statute of limitations has not expired, you will be barred from suing the architect or engineer.
Many types of cases can involve a statute of repose.
The statute of repose may be nullified or extended if fraud or intentional deceit prevented you from discovering the cause of harm in time to meet your deadline.
Other Deadlines May Apply
The statute of limitations may not be the only, or the first, deadline in your case. In some types of cases there are deadlines which come up much sooner than the statute of limitations runs out. For instance, in cases against government entities you typically have a very short period of time in which to file a notice of intent to sue. In some states there is a similar deadline for medical malpractice actions.
Protecting Your Rights
Although it is fairly easy to find a chart which tells you the statutes of limitations for different types of cases in each state, you should not rely on that information to determine if you have a valid case. A much more complex web of law comes into play with the unique circumstances in your case.
If you are a defendant and the statute of limitations has expired in your case, it may be up to you to raise that issue in your defense. A common example is when you are facing a lawsuit brought by a “zombie” debt collector.