A statute of limitations is a law that places a time limit on pursuing a legal remedy in relation to wrongful conduct. After the expiration of the statutory period, unless a legal exception applies, the injured person loses the right to file a lawsuit seeking money damages or other relief.
Although people often speak of the statute of limitations,in fact there are many statutes which apply limitations periods to civil actions. Sometimes it can be difficult to keep track of the various statutes and their exceptions. Thus it is a very good idea for somebody who is concerned about losing their right to sue as a result of the expiration of the statutory limitations period to consult with a qualified lawyer, who can help determine which statute applies, and help preserve the right to recover damages.
The following periods represent a small sample of the statutory limitations periods in Alaska.
Personal Injury: 2 years.
Fraud: 10 years.
Libel / Slander / Defamation: 2 years.
Injury to Personal Property: 6 years.
Product Liability: 2 years.
Contracts: 3 years.
Wrongful Death: 2 years.
Please note that it may be possible to bring multiple causes of action from a single incident of wrongful conduct, and thus even if it appears that the relevant statute of limitations has run it may remain possible to bring a different claim. Also, there may be an exception to the standard limitations period that applies to any given situation. The statutes summarized in this article are offered by way of example and the calculation of the limitations period can be significantly more complicated than a mere number suggests. If you wish to know how the statute of limitations applies to a specific situation, you should verify the statutory time period and its relevance to your situation with a qualified Alaska lawyer.
A statute of repose is different from a statute of limitations, in that after the statutory period has expired it is not possible to file a lawsuit even if an injury occurs after that time. For example, under Alaska's statute for personal injury actions, most personal injury actions must be commenced within ten years from the date of the injury.
A statute of limitations is said to start running at the time a claim accrues. Ordinarily, that is the time at which an injury is suffered.
Sometimes it is not reasonably possible for a person to discover the cause of an injury, or even to know that an injury has occurred, until considerably after the act which causes the injury. For example, it may take several years to diagnose physical symptoms as having resulted from medical malpractice, or to discover a financial planner's embezzlement due to the issuance of false statements of account.
Under Alaska's discovery rule, the statute of limitations begins to run when the injured person discovers, or should have discovered, the existence of the cause of action.
In addition to late discovery, it may be possible to avoid the harsh result of a statute of limitation by arguing that the statute has been "tolled". When it is said that a statute is "tolled", it means that something has stopped the statute from running for a period of time. Typical reasons for tolling a statute of limitations include minority (the victim of the injury was a minor at the time the injury occurred), mental incompetence (the victim of the injury was not mentally competent at the time the injury occurred), and the defendant's bankruptcy (the "automatic stay" in bankruptcy ordinarily tolls the statute of limitations until such time as the bankruptcy is resolved or the stay is lifted).
When a statute of limitations is tolled on the basis of the victim's minority, the victim usually has a period of time after reaching the age of majority to bring a lawsuit in relation to the injury. However, that is not always the case, particularly within the context of medical malpractice. Under Alaska law, a minor injured by medical malpractice must file suit within two years plus one day of his or her eighteenth birthday, or within two years plus one day of the date of the minor's marriage. (With court approval, a minor in Alaska can be married at the age of 14.)
It is often possible to shorten a statutory limitations period by contract. For example, an employment contract might require that any claim relating to the employment relationship, including wrongful termination, be filed within one year of the claimed wrongful conduct. Courts often uphold these clauses, particularly in the context of business transactions, even though they provide for a shorter limitations period than the statute of limitations would otherwise apply.