Statutes of Limitations

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“Statutes of limitations” are laws which say how long, after certain events, a lawsuit may be started based on those events.

These laws are based on the notion of fairness. Over time, memories fade, evidence is lost, and witnesses disappear. Normally, people prefer to get on with their lives without legal intrusions from the past – unless a really horrible crime has been committed.

The period of time within which a person or agency may file a lawsuit varies according to the type of claim. For example, lawsuits related to real property have fairly long limitations periods, while slander and libel usually have short periods. Some crimes, such as murder, are considered so terrible that they often have no limitations period.  To see a timetable for “Statutes of limitations”, click here.

Normally, once the statute of limitations on a case “runs out,” a lawsuit cannot be started in court.

For civil lawsuits, statues of limitations usually range between one and ten years.

  • Sometimes this time period is counted from the date of the event itself – as in the date of a personal injury.
  • Other times, this period is counted from the date of discovery of a condition one wishes to put right, such as discovering a defect in a manufactured good.

For criminal lawsuits, statues of limitations have a very wide range depending on if the case is for:

  • an infraction (such as a parking ticket);
  • a misdemeanor (such as for shop-lifting); or
  • a felony (such as murder).

Except for when a government agency is sued, there is almost always have at least one year from the date of an event to file a lawsuit, no matter what type of claim it is. Generally, one should have no statute of limitations worries if a suit is filed within this one-year period.

Once a complaint is filed on time, a statute of limitations has nothing to do with how long it takes for a case to conclude. However, most states do have separate "diligent prosecution" statutes, which require those involved to move the case to trial within a certain time period or face dismissal.




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