Statute of Limitations

There are statutes of limitations for most types of legal actions. This type of statute (a legislatively created law) limits the amount of time a plaintiff has to file his or her case against the defendant.

The rationale behind statutes of limitations is that we will all benefit as a society from having a closed period of time in which a plaintiffs can ask a court to make someone else pay for harm to them. For example, if there were no statutes of limitations, you could be sued for injuries sustained by someone in a car accident you caused fifty years ago. First of all, it would be very unlikely that the evidence a court needs to review to decide a case would still exist in fifty years (witnesses will have disappeared, documentary evidence will have been lost or destroyed, etc.)

Beside this practical reason, the principles of fair play and due process that exist throughout the law in the United States lead to the conclusion that a party should not be required to defend himself or herself against a very old claim; it is simply considered unfair.

There are exceptions to this rule when society’s interest in having a party found guilty or liable outweighs these principles. Thus, there is no statute of limitations on murder charges in most jurisdictions. We as a society have decided it is more important to prosecute murderers at any time the crime can be proven because that is more fair than allowing murderers to rest easy after a certain amount of time has passed.

The statute of limitations is very important to your personal injury case; if the time limit passes and you have not filed a suit, you will be forever barred from suing the defendant. Usually, the time limit starts running the day you reasonably become aware of your injury. In a car accident case, this will usually be the day of your accident.

However, there are personal injury cases in which you may only discover that you were injured after the fact. A medical malpractice plaintiff may discover years after a procedure that the doctor violated his or her duty of care to the plaintiff; the statute of limitations would not start running until the plaintiff reasonably should have known of the harm. This discovery rule creates some room for arguing as to when the statute of limitations bars a lawsuit, but the average personal injury lawsuit is based on a known event, which is when the statute of limitations will start running.

The important thing to know as a personal injury plaintiff is that the limitations period exists, and that you should talk to a personal injury lawyer as soon as you become aware of your personal injury. Your personal injury attorney will advise you as to the relevant limitations period, and should make sure that you file your lawsuit before your suit becomes time-barred.