You may be aware that if you have been injured there is a time limit imposed by law on how long you have to bring suit against the party who caused your injury. This is known as the Statute of Limitations. Usually, once the time limit set out in the statute has expired you can no longer validly bring a claim for that injury. There are some instances where the times can be extended either by agreement or by a judge, but they are the exceptions, not the rule.
These time limits are created by each state’s legislatures in order to provide some structure and certainty to our legal system. Different states have different rules on such things as how long you have to bring a personal injury action or an action on a contract. The time limits can also be changed by the legislatures.
Why Limit Someone’s Time?
There are a number of reasons to limit the time you have to bring a lawsuit. One reason is to protect defendants by requiring that plaintiffs with a valid claim pursue them with reasonable diligence – not sit on the claim. Another reason is that a defendant might have lost evidence that would otherwise disprove a stale claim. Witness recollections become dim or even non-existent, if the witnesses have disappeared or died.
In the area of contract litigation, the philosophy is that society benefits from the free flow of commerce, and allowing stale claims to be litigated would hamper our economies, because a business would never know when an old claim might crop up. Keeping business records forever would be required, and even in this digital age, that is just not practical.
The concept of limiting the time one has to bring suit goes back thousands of years. In ancient Greece (505-322 B.C.), the city of Athens had a five year statute of limitations to bring all actions. The exceptions were for homicide and actions against non-constitutional laws – these had no limitations. It has been suggested that these limits were imposed to deter “professional accusers.”
“Tolling” the Statute of Limitations
You can see how having these rules might work an injustice for someone who has been harmed in some way. It may seem that the statute does not really give one enough time to bring a lawsuit. Our justice system has a method of dealing with this to avoid an unfair result.
One example is where the injury or wrongdoing occurred when the plaintiff was a child. If no one brought suit on the child’s behalf, the statute of limitations clock does not start until the child turns 18. The statute is “tolled” (delayed) until the child is a legal adult and can pursue the suit on his or her own behalf. Also, if a person is mentally incompetent, the statute is tolled until they regain their competency. (If they never do, then someone else may bring the suit on their behalf.)
Another reason to toll the statute of limitations is when the plaintiff has not discovered the injury until much later down the road. An extreme example of this situation occurs with those who have been exposed to asbestos. Injuries due to asbestos exposure may not appear in a person until 25-50 years after exposure to the substance. There is no way someone could have known about the potential injury until it manifests, so the time clock begins to run when the person discovers they have medical issues caused by the asbestos exposure. This is often many years after the event of exposure. To disallow a claim of this nature would definitely be an injustice to the injured person.
A less extreme example can occur in medical malpractice cases. If a sponge or medical instrument is left in a surgical patient, they may not even know about it until such time as there is an infection or other problem caused by the object. This can be several years after the surgery. Here, too, the clock begins when the discovery is made (or, in some cases, should have been made).
Civil vs. Criminal Statutes of Limitations
There are statutes of limitations on criminal matters as well, although for murder and other heinous crimes most states have no time limitations. Many states have also eliminated statutes of limitations for crimes against children, especially those of a sexual nature.
The main difference between civil and criminal statutes of limitations is that the criminal limitations are pretty much chiseled in stone. Once the time set out in the statute has passed, there can be no criminal prosecution. Limitations on civil suits may be extended by agreement between the parties or, in some cases, because a judge rules that to NOT allow a case to go forward would be an injustice.
Florida’s statutes of limitation are set out in Chapter 95 of the Florida Statutes. There are a variety of time limitations based on the type of case, and all sorts of cases are listed. You must bring an action on a contract claim or a negligence claim (except for medical malpractice) within 4 years. Most auto accident or personal injury cases are based on negligence. A claim for wrongful death must be brought within 2 years of the person’s death. Fraud claims must be brought within four years. A claim based on medical malpractice must be brought within two years, but there are several extensions and limitations contained in this part of the statute, depending on the age of the person who was harmed and time of the discovery of the harm. For more explanation on this, you should consult an attorney who is experienced in medical malpractice claims to see what exactly applies in your circumstances.
The time limits may seem very clear-cut, but keep in mind that with any statute of limitations there may be exceptions that vary from what the statute appears to say. An attorney experienced in the particular area of law will be able to guide you in this matter.
If you have been injured, or a loved one has been killed, and you think you may have a lawsuit against the responsible party, do not wait to pursue your claim. If the statute of limitations has expired, you may have forfeited your ability to bring a lawsuit and obtain compensation. You should consult an attorney experienced in personal injury as soon as possible.