In a civil case, such as a breach of contract action or a personal injury claim, the statute of limitations is a law that limits the amount of time that you have to file a lawsuit. The time limit set by a statute of limitations starts to run when a cause of action accrues, the date when a legal injury occurs and it becomes possible to file a valid cause of action in court. Once the time limit set by a statute of limitations expires, you are considered to be time-barred from filing the lawsuit.
Normally the issue of the statute of limitations must be raised by the defendant, but once raised it can be a very effective tool to defeat a lawsuit, no matter how responsible the defendant is for the harm, injury or damages suffered by a plaintiff. If a defendant does not raise the statute of limitations as a defense, the statute of limitations may be deemed waived and the lawsuit allowed to proceed even if it was filed after the limitations period was over.
A related type of statute is a statute of repose. The difference between a statute of limitations and a statute of repose is that, with a statute of limitations, there are circumstances that can allow the period for filing a lawsuit to be extended. With a statute of repose, once the defined time period passes the lawsuit can be defeated by the statute no matter what other facts are involved.
For example, most states allow for the statute of limitations to be tolled (a fancy word for extended) by such factors as the plaintiff's being below the age of adulthood, the defendant's absence from the state, or acts of concealment by the defendant that prevent the plaintiff from identifying the injury or the defendant's liability. With a statute of repose, none of those factors matter.
Although the rules change between states and sometimes can be different based upon the type of lawsuit being filed, often a statute of limitations will not start to run until the injured person knows about, or reasonably should have known about, the fact that an injury occurred for which the defendant might be legally responsible. Many states have shorter discovery rules or have no discovery rule at all for specific types of lawsuits, including medical malpractice cases.
Sometimes the litigation of a civil dispute will occur in a different jurisdiction than the state in which the cause of action accrued. In order to prevent forum shopping, the filing of a lawsuit in a jurisdiction that has more favorable laws including a longer statute of limitations, most states have passed laws that require courts to examine both the statute of limitations applicable where the case was filed and the statute of limitations where the cause of action accrued, and to apply the shorter period. These laws are called borrowing statutes based on the conception that the state in which the case is filed borrows a shorter statute of limitations from the other jurisdiction.
The laws governing statutes of limitation, including when the clock starts running on the limitations period, and whether or when the limitations period may be tolled. Even within a state, the statute of limitations can also be very different for one type of action versus another. For example, a state may have a one year statute of limitations for a defamation claim, a two year statute of limitations for most personal injury claims, and a six year statute of limitations for a breach of contract case.
Due to the significant differences in state statutes of limitations, it is important to research the laws and rules for the specific state where a lawsuit may be filed, and for the specific causes of action that will be raised in the lawsuit. The following articles provide summaries of state civil statutes of limitation, the statutory limits on the right to commence a civil legal action, for each state:
- New Hampshire
- New Jersey
- New Mexico
- New York
- North Carolina
- North Dakota
- Rhode Island
- South Carolina
- South Dakota
- Washington, DC
- West Virginia