Statute of limitations is a legal term used to describe state statutes that specify the amount of time a plaintiff has to file a civil lawsuit or the amount of time a prosecutor has to file a criminal complaint against a defendant.

The statute of limitations serves to place a limit on the plaintiff by establishing a deadline for filing their lawsuit; if enough time has passed, the plaintiff or criminal prosecutor is barred from bringing their case against the defendant.

The deadline for filing a lawsuit varies depending on the type of suit being filed and the applicable state statutes where the plaintiff is filing the lawsuit.

Why Do States Have Statute of Limitations?

As noted above, one purpose of statute of limitations is to protect defendants from untimely litigation. Statute of limitations allow plaintiffs to pursue valid claims against defendants, but only when the plaintiffs exercise due diligence in timely filing the claims.

Once again, what is considered a timely filing of a claim will depend on the state where the claim is being filed and the type of claim being filed. For example, in the state of Texas, a normal statute of limitations for a plaintiff to file a civil lawsuit is two years from the date of the incident.

There are three main reasons why the law enacts statutes of limitations:

  1. The statute forces a plaintiff with a valid cause of action to bring the claim timely;
  2. Bringing a claim untimely may result in the loss of evidence by a defendant necessary to defend themselves against the claim; and
  3. Litigation of a long-dormant claim may result in more cruelty than justice.

When Does Time Begin to Run on Statute of Limitations?

The United States Supreme Court has indicated many times that the standard rule is that the statute of limitations begins to run “when the plaintiff has a complete and present cause of action.” The statute of limitations typically begins when the harmful event, such as the crime or injury occurs, or when the plaintiff discovers the injury, such as in cases of fraud.

If a lawsuit is commenced after the statute of limitations, then the claim will likely be thrown out of the court with a simple motion from the defendant. However, in some cases the clock may have been paused for a period of time; this is known as “tolling the limitations.”

For example, in criminal cases where the defendant commits a crime and flees, which results in them becoming a fugitive of the state, the state will then suspend the statute of limitations for the period of time that the fugitive was on the run.

This means that the prosecutor will be able to bring the criminal charges forward, once the fugitive is caught, not counting the time spent on the run. Additionally, in cases where plaintiff is a minor, meaning they were under the age of 18 at the time, many states allow tolling of the statute until the plaintiff reaches the majority age of 18. 

Further, it is even possible in cases of private civil matters for the statute of limitations to be shortened or lengthened by an agreement of both of the parties.

Where Can I Find the Statute of Limitations?

A statute of limitations is first and foremost a statute, meaning it is a state law. This means that the statute of limitations is usually found in the state statute for the claim you are seeking to file, and these can be easily found online. For instance in personal injury cases, if you are seeking to file a negligence complaint related to a car accident, then you should look under the common law negligence statute for your state.

Within the common law negligence state statute, there will be a section entitled “statute of limitations,” which will contain the amount of time plaintiff will have to file their claims; this will usually be notated in a term of years (two years, four years, five years, etc.). 

The statute may also define when the statute of limitations begins running, which is useful in calculating whether the statute of limitation has indeed ran, or if you still have time to file a claim due to the tolling of the statute.

Do I Need a Lawyer?

As can be seen above, the statute of limitations is a hard, and sometimes fast, deadline that may prevent you from being able to bring your claims against a defendant. If you are interested in filing a lawsuit, or one has been filed against you, it is in your best interests to seek the assistance of a local civil lawyer.

An attorney that practices in the area of personal injury law can help to determine the viability and timeliness of your claim and to help you determine if the statute of limitations has passed on your claim. A well qualified personal injury attorney may also assist you in pursuing your claims further, or defending yourself from claims against you, and help you navigate your local court system.