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 Massachusetts.
Personal Injury: 3 years. However, a person injured in a hit-and-run accident may commence suit within six months of learning the identity of the hit-and-run driver.
Fraud: 3 years.
Libel / Slander / Defamation: 3 years.
Injury to Personal Property: 3 years.
Product Liability: 3 years.
Contracts: Written and under seal, 20 years. Otherwise, 6 years.
Wrongful Death: 3 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 Massachusetts 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, Massachusetts has a six year statute of repose for negligence actions arising from the design, planning, construction or general administration of an improvement to real property, starting from the earlier of the date of the substantial completion of the improvement or the date it is opened to use.
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, an error in the drafting of a will might not be noticed until the will is being executed, decades after it was drafted, or a financial planner's embezzlement might not be noticed for years due to the issuance of false statements of account.
When it applies, the discovery rule permits a suit to be filed within a certain period of time after the injury is or reasonably should have been discovered. The discovery rule does not apply to all civil injuries, and sometimes the period of time for bringing a claim post-discovery can be short, so it is important to seek legal assistance quickly in the event of the late discovery of an injury.
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).
Under Massachusetts law, except in cases of medical malpractice, the statute of limitations begins to run upon a minor's eighteenth birthday. For medical malpractice claims involving minors under the age of six, a claim must be filed by the minor's ninth birthday, but not more than seven years after the date of injury unless a foreign object being left inside the body, in which case the limitations period begins to run when the plaintiff discovers or should have discovered the presence of the foreign object. For disability, such as mental incompetence, the limitations period runs from the date of removal of the disability.
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.