Legalese — Statutes of Limitation

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Statutes of limitation are generally understood as something that limits you in the amount of time you have to bring a lawsuit or a charge against someone.  But what do they mean exactly?  A lot of people think that they mean the whole thing has to be done before the statute of limitation expires, but that’s not it.  Rather, it means that the lawsuit or criminal charge has to be started before the statute of limitation runs.

What the statute of limitation is depends on what kind of crime or civil offense you are dealing with.  Crimes can be anywhere from two years (misdemeanors) to an unlimited amount of time for things like murder or crimes where DNA evidence is used to establish an accused’s identity.  The statute of limitation can change if the victim is under 18 or over 65 years old.  One notable thing about criminal statutes of limitation is that you can’t just hide until the statute of limitation runs – the clock doesn’t start ticking until the mystery is solved and they know ‘who dunnit.’

Civil complaints, which are everything that isn’t criminal, are all over the map in terms of time limits.  Basic contracts are six years, except leases and contracts for sales of goods are only four years.  You only have two years to bring an action under the Fair Business Practices Act, but 20 years to enforce rights accrued under statutes, acts of incorporation, or by operation of law.

If it’s a product liability case, you can’t bring the case more than ten years from the first sale for use or consumption.  If it is an asbestos claim, you only have a year from the date of diagnosis of asbestosis.

Medical malpractice is generally two years, but if the person against whom the malpractice occurred was under five years of age, then the statute doesn’t run until two years after the child’s fifth birthday.  If a foreign object was left in your body, you have a year after you figured out that a foreign object was left in your body to bring suit.

For legal malpractice you have four years to bring suit, for accounting malpractice, you have six.

Here’s something quirky. Have you ever signed anything where next to the signature line it had this written: (seal)?  I’ll bet you never thought twice about it.  It’s actually legally very meaningful.  What it means is that you signed it under seal, and it means that it is a “sealed instrument” and it changes the statute of limitations on actions brought under it to 20 years.

There are, of course, exceptions to every rule, and the rules change with some regularity.  I have to look these things up almost every time I use them, so PLEASE do not use this as a hard and fast guide about how much time you have to bring suit, just use it as a rule of thumb.  There are rules I haven’t mentioned here about when the time starts running, and what may make the clock stop ticking for a few moments.  They are confusing rules, and often times lawyers and judges disagree about what they mean.

Like most things, it doesn’t pay to wait until the last minute.  There isn’t usually a whole lot of benefit in waiting until the statute of limitations is about to run before filing what you need to file.  There’s actual case law out there about what happens when the e-filing system crashes at the 11th hour and the case can’t get filed in time.  (Answer: too bad, you’re out of luck, should have started earlier.)

This isn’t a 10th grade history paper: there are no extensions in exchange for ten points off.  In a court room, deadlines mean deadlines.

Nothing in this article should be construed as legal advice.  It is being offered for informational purposes only.

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