What are statutes of limitations?

You've been wronged, you're mad, and you know you want to sue. Better yet, you know your case is so well documented, there's no way you won't win. That is, unless you wait just a little too long to get to court. So, what you need to know about statutes of limitations. Read more to find out how statutes of limitations can affect you and your case.

by Heleigh Bostwick
updated May 02, 2022 ·  2min read

You've been wronged, you're mad, and you know you want to sue. Better yet, you know your case is so well documented, there's no way you won't win. That is, unless you wait just a little too long to get to court. If you fall victim to the statute of limitations for your particular lawsuit, there is no way a court can help you right your wrong. The question is: what you need to know about statutes of limitations? Here is how they can affect your case.

What are Statutes of Limitations?

Statutes of limitations are laws that specify how much time a person has to file a lawsuit against a company or an individual. Once this period of time or "statutory deadline" has passed, it is no longer possible to file a claim or case related to the alleged incident or event. For example, if one state's statute of limitations for medical malpractice is 2 years, and you file a lawsuit 2 years and 1 day after an alleged incident has occurred, you are out of luck. With very few exceptions, once that 2-year statutory deadline has passed, a lawsuit cannot be filed against the doctor or hospital for any reason whatsoever.

There are two types of statutes of limitations, criminal and civil. Most statutes of limitations refer to civil cases. While crimes such as misdemeanors or petty crimes have statues of limitations, most crimes do not. Homicides, for example, can be prosecuted at any time.

Not only varying by type, cases or claims are subject to two different statutes of limitations, depending on the court in which they are filed. Federal statutes of limitations refer federal courts, and state statutes of limitations pertain to state courts. Federal statutes of limitations have their own time periods, and the same lawsuit's time period will vary by state. As a general rule, most states' statutes of limitations range from 1 to 6 years.

Common Statutes of Limitations

What can you sue for? Sometimes, it feels like anything at all. If your lawsuit falls under the following categories, you are also subject to a statute of limitations. Investigate at the state and federal level how long the statue is and just how it will apply to you. Common statutes in civil law include:

  • Debts
  • Breach of a written or oral contract
  • Medical malpractice
  • Childhood sexual abuse
  • Personal injury based on negligence or intentional wrongdoing
  • Libel or slander
  • Domestic violence
  • Fraud and misrepresentation
  • Property damage from negligence or intentional wrongdoing

How Can Statutes of Limitations Affect Your Case?

Your statue of limitations clock starts counting down at the time of the alleged incident or event. In certain lawsuits however, you may have more time than your realize. The statutory deadline can be extended or "tolled," as it is called in legal circles. A good example is the discovery of an injury after the fact; if six months after an operation it becomes apparent the doctor was negligent or personal injuries due to negligence that happened to a minor under the age of 18.

In order to protect your rights, it pays to know what the statutes of limitations apply to your case. As a general rule, if you're thinking about filing a lawsuit, get after it. Filing sooner rather than later will save you from any hassle with statues of limitations.

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Heleigh Bostwick

About the Author

Heleigh Bostwick

Heleigh Bostwick has been writing for LegalZoom since 2006, touching on topics as diverse as estate planning and kids, c… Read more

This portion of the site is for informational purposes only. The content is not legal advice. The statements and opinions are the expression of the author, not LegalZoom, and have not been evaluated by LegalZoom for accuracy, completeness, or changes in the law.