The purpose of a statute of limitations is to protect defendants from the uncertainty of unknown claims and to prevent inequitable results due to the passage of time.
Civil Statute of Limitations
The statute of limitations is a law that sets the maximum amount of time following an event that a plaintiff can take legal action. Most states have both criminal and civil statutes of limitations, which govern their respective cases. When the specified period expires, plaintiffs can no longer file a claim. If they attempt to file a claim, the defendant may seek to have the case dismissed for being filed after the statutory period.
For example, if a person tries to sue another for causing an injury long after the alleged incident, the defendant may not have retained the necessary evidence to disprove the claim in Court, and the defendant may have acted in a different manner should the plaintiff have raised the claim timely. In addition, when plaintiffs delayed raising valid claims, evidence may be lost or destroyed, and witnesses may have fading memories or may no longer be available. It is also assumed that if a plaintiff has a valid cause for legal action, they should pursue it within a reasonable period.
How the statute of limitations works
The statute of limitations is governed by the specifics of the situation and the legal frameworks of the state or federal courts where claims may be raised. The following explains how the periods are determined, when time starts or accrues, and how the statute of limitations can impact compensation:
How periods are determined
The length of time for the statute of limitations depends on the jurisdiction and the type of claim. There are statutes for both civil and criminal cases, which typically have different periods associated with them. Each state has its own statute of limitations periods for causes of action based on its laws, and the federal government maintains statute of limitations periods for federal laws. Since each state determines its own laws, it is at the discretion of state governments to determine the length of these periods. While most states have statute of limitations laws of around two to three years for claims, others may be longer or shorter depending on the situation underlying the potential claim.
Starting the clock
In most situations, the clock starts on a statute of limitations under three general circumstances: when a person (1) experiences an injury, (2) knew of an injury, or (3) should have known of an injury. For example, suppose a person sustains an injury due to someone’s negligence. Based on their state’s statute of limitations, they have two years to file a lawsuit. If that person filed a lawsuit two years and one day from the date of their injury, they would no longer be able to take legal action.
Some situations may delay the start of the statute of limitations clock. For example, someone may be injured through using a product, but not discover the injury for a few years when they are diagnosed with a resulting illness. In this instance, the statute of limitations clock would begin when the victim discovered their injury. There are also different rules for children, with the statute of limitations typically beginning when the child reaches the age of majority, which is typically 18.
Impact on compensation
The statute of limitations can significantly impact whether claimants receive compensation from a personal injury case. In most cases, judges will dismiss legal actions that were filed following the expiration of the statute of limitations. Even if the plaintiff has a strong case against the defendant and deserves financial compensation, they will not be able to take legal action against them. This is why it is essential to learn the state’s statute of limitations and begin the legal process before this period expires.
Statute of limitations for all 50 states
Each state has a statute of limitation periods, which vary depending on the type of legal action the plaintiff wishes to pursue. Plaintiffs need to know the statute of limitations in their state to determine how much time they have to file a legal action. The following table shows the current statutes of limitations for all 50 states, along with Washington, D.C., to help plaintiffs determine their deadlines:
|State||Civil Cases (Oral)||Civil Cases (Written)||Most Felonies||Personal Injury||Personal Property|
|Alabama||6||6||3||2||2 to 6|
|Alaska||3||3||5 to 10||2||2|
|Arkansas||3||5||3 to 6||3||3|
|California||2||4||3 to 6||2||3 to 4|
|Colorado||6||6||3||2 to 3||2 to 3|
|Connecticut||3||6||5 to 30||2||2|
|Delaware||3||3||5 to 13||2 to 3||2 to 3|
|District of Columbia||3||3||3||3||3|
|Florida||4||5||3 to 5||2 to 4||2 to 4|
|Georgia||4||6||4 to 15||2||4|
|Hawaii||6||6||3 to 10||2||2|
|Idaho||4||5||3 to 5||2||3|
|Illinois||5||10||3 to 7||2||5|
|Indiana||5||10||5 to 6||2||2|
|Iowa||5||10||3 to 10||2||5|
|Kansas||3||5||5 to 10||2||2|
|Louisiana||10||10||4 to 10||1||1|
|Maine||6||6||2 to 6||6||6|
|Massachusetts||6||6||6 to 15||3||3|
|Michigan||6||6||6 to 10||3||3|
|Minnesota||6||6||3 to 9||2 to 6||6|
|Mississippi||3||3||2||2 to 3||3|
|Missouri||5||10||1 to 10||2 to 5||5|
|Montana||5||8||1 to 10||3||2|
|Nebraska||4||5||1 to 7||2 to 4||4|
|Nevada||4||6||4||2 to 3||3|
|New Hampshire||3||3||1 to 6||3||3|
|New Jersey||6||6||5 to 7||2||6|
|New Mexico||4||6||3 to 6||3||4|
|New York||6||6||1 to 5||2 to 3||3|
|North Carolina||3||3||None||2 to 3||3|
|North Dakota||6||6||3 to 10||2 to 6||6|
|Ohio||6||8||1 to 20||1 to 2||2|
|Oklahoma||3||5||3 to 7||2||2|
|Oregon||6||6||6 to 12||2 to 3||2 to 6|
|Pennsylvania||4||4||2 to 12||2||2|
|Rhode Island||10||10||3 to 10||3||10|
|South Dakota||6||6||7||2 to 3||6|
|Tennessee||6||6||2 to 25||1||3|
|Texas||4||4||3 to 10||2||2|
|Utah||4||6||2 to 4||2 to 4||2 to 3|
|Vermont||6||6||6 to 40||2 to 3||3|
|Virginia||3||5||1 to 5||2||5|
|Washington||3||6||1 to 10||2 to 3||2 to 3|
|Wisconsin||6||6||None||2 to 3||3 to 6|
|Wyoming||8||10||None||2 to 4||4|
Exceptions to the statute of limitations
There are a few situations that may provide exceptions to the statute of limitations. While they do not allow the statute of limitations to be avoided forever, they can sometimes pause, delay, or suspend it, giving someone more time to file a lawsuit. These exceptions do not apply in every state, making it important to consult a lawyer to determine whether any of the following situations can affect the statute of limitations for your claim.
The delayed discovery rule.
The primary exception to the statute of limitations is the delayed discovery rule. This states that the statute of limitations may be suspended if the injured person cannot reasonably be expected to discover the injury. For example, there is current litigation underway involving the use of firefighting foam and the development of health complications, including cancer. In many of these cases, the victims did not develop health complications until years after inhaling the firefighting foam. Another example is when a patient discovers that equipment, such as surgical sponges, remained inside their body after surgery.
In such cases, a person may not realize they are injured until years after the incident. With the delayed discovery rule, the statute of limitations would start at the time of the injury but would be suspended until its discovery. There is one important caveat with the delayed discovery rule, which states that the person must make a reasonable inquiry to discover their injury. This rule, therefore, precludes someone from benefiting from it if they willfully ignore signs of an injury.
Equitable estoppel and equitable tolling
Another common exception to the statute of limitations is equitable estoppel. When referring to the statute of limitations, equitable estoppel is also known as fraudulent concealment. This rule takes effect if the defendant attempts to stop the plaintiff from either learning of an injury, or that defendant caused an injury, with the hope plaintiff does not file a lawsuit timely. If the plaintiff discovers an injury, and the defendant tries to delay the lawsuit, then the statute of limitations may be suspended or paused to allow the plaintiff more time.
Equitable tolling is often applied when the plaintiff knows they are injured but could not, through reasonable diligence, obtain the information necessary to determine the cause of the injury, or whether the injury was the fault of someone else. This exception may allow for a pause in the statute of limitations to give the plaintiff more time to obtain the necessary information.
In some situations, mental incapacity may allow an extension of the statute of limitations. If a person suffered from mental incapacity before the accident, they may have more time to bring their case. However, if the person suffers a mental incapacity because of the accident, then the normal statute of limitation applies. With this rule, a mentally incapacitated person may be able to toll the statute beyond the normal limitations period.
Arbitration is when two parties come to an agreement outside of Court. Many states encourage parties to settle through arbitration rather than bringing the case to Court. Therefore, if there is a pending arbitration case that is connected to the personal injury in question, the statute of limitations in many states will be tolled until the completion of the arbitration. Consulting with a lawyer about a case can help plaintiffs learn whether there are any ongoing arbitration discussions related to their situation and whether the statute of limitations could be extended under the law, or through an equitable tolling agreement with the defendant.
Extension of the statute of limitations in some states
Over the past few years, some states have enacted laws to extend or eliminate the statute of limitations in certain situations. For example, New Jersey, New York, and California enacted new laws that give victims of sexual assault, abuse, or harassment more time to file their claims. New Jersey’s legislation, which was enacted in 2019, gave broader rights to individuals seeking to file claims of sexual assault, abuse, or harassment against organizations, such as sexual abuse lawsuits against clergy. In addition, under the new law, victims of child sexual abuse may bring claims against individuals or institutions until they reach the age of 55.
Along with these new laws, states have established new look-back windows that serve to expand applicable limitations periods. A look-back window is typically around one to three years long and allows those who would have been eligible to file lawsuits under the new laws to seek justice, regardless of how long ago they were abused. States that have established a look-back window include New York, New Jersey, Colorado, Louisiana, Arizona, California, Montana, Hawaii, North Carolina, and Vermont.
Of these states, the most common window length is two years. One notable exception is Vermont, where the look-back window is set to remain perpetually open. Other states have already opened and closed their look-back windows, such as California, which had a deadline of Dec. 31, 2022.
States that have either extended their statutes of limitation or eliminated them include:
- New Jersey
- New York
- North Carolina
- Rhode Island
- Washington, D.C.