How Can a Statute of Limitations Affect Your Legal Rights?
In any legal matter, whether it involves criminal charges or suing for damages relating to an injury, legal action can be commenced only within a certain period. The rules stipulating the terms and duration for pursuing legal actions are governed by written laws known as “statutes of limitations.” The maximum time allowed in which to file a legal claim once a crime or injury occurs varies from state to state, and within each state, there are different statutory periods for different crimes and different types of civil disputes.
Duration of the Statute of Limitations
The statute of limitations sets the maximum period within which you can initiate legal proceedings. For criminal matters, the statute of limitations prohibits filing charges after the statutory period has elapsed. For civil cases, litigants cannot file a complaint or petition with the clerk of the court after the specified period has run out.
How Long Are the Periods Set in the Statute of Limitations?
The exact statute of limitations period for a particular crime or civil claim depends on the law of the applicable state. An attorney can help you confirm your deadline to press charges or file a claim.
The typical statute of limitations for criminal cases is anywhere from 6 months to 10 years, depending on the specific crime. The statutory period for felonies ranges from 3 to 10 years. Some serious crimes, such as murder and kidnapping, often have no statute of limitations.
Civil actions, such as claims for damages caused by negligence, fraud, or breach of contract, commonly have statutes of limitations of 2 to 6 years, based on the jurisdiction and type of claim.
What Is the Purpose of the Statute of Limitations?
The statute of limitations are imposed for the following reasons:
- Disputes are best resolved when memories are fresh.
- The longer the period of time between the incident and the legal action is, the greater is the likelihood that witnesses will move away or die, or that critical evidence will be lost, destroyed, or compromised.
- It would be unfair for a civil or criminal defendant to live with the perpetual threat of legal action hanging over their head.
Can the Statute of Limitations Be Extended or Suspended?
Most states recognize one or more exceptions to the statute of limitations. The “discovery rule” is recognized in all states except Michigan, Alabama, and Idaho. Under this rule, the running of the statutory period may be suspended, or “tolled,” if the party with a claim neither knew nor could have known about the claim after the incident occurred. For example, a person involved in a motor vehicle accident may show any physical symptoms for months or years after the accident. Under the discovery rule, if the person neither knew nor could reasonably have known of a traumatic brain injury caused by the accident, the statute of limitations does not start to run until they actually know or should know about the injury.
The statutory period for filing a case with the court also may be modified—often shortened—if the defendant is a governmental entity. For example, claims against governmental defendants under the New Jersey Tort Claims Act must be filed within 90 days.
The statute of limitations sets forth the maximum time permissible for filing litigation or bringing charges in court, and that time period varies based on the legal matter and jurisdiction. The statutory period may be suspended or extended based on the discovery rule, which holds that the statutory period does not start until the claimant either actually knows or should reasonably know about the claim.