The idea behind statutes of limitation is mainly one of general practicability and fairness. It is never fair to let a legal matter hang unfinished over someone’s head indefinitely. There needs to be a distinct end to each legal conflict in order to let the parties involved move on with their lives. Particular legal matters may cause parties to cease certain business transactions or personal activity as they await the outcome.
A similar dynamic is at work with respect to statutes of limitation. The offending party in any legal dispute knows that he or she committed or may be accused of committing some wrong against the other party. In such a case, the wronged party must decide whether to press a lawsuit in order to recover for his or her wrong. The law will not tolerate a procrastinative plaintiff, a plaintiff who delays for effect, or one who is negligent or forgetful. After a period of time has passed, the chance to sue disappears.
The lengths of time for statutes of limitation correspond roughly to the amount of notice that both parties have regarding the underlying injury or wrong. The more notice both parties have that there is a problem and the more likely it is that the injured party will sue, the longer the statute of limitation. The less likely it is that the offending party will be aware of his wrong or the more inconsequential it is likely to be, the shorter the statute of limitation.
The longest statutes of limitation are generally those regarding the recovery of judgments after a lawsuit. Obviously, the parties are clearly on notice in this situation. If the losing party refuses to pay his judgment, it should come as no surprise that he will be sued, even if it is as many as ten years later. On the other hand, if one person is physically injured by another person but does not sue within a year or two, it is reasonable to expect that the plaintiff either forgot about the injury or it was not as serious as originally suspected. In this case, the potential defendant is protected from a lawsuit that he may not even be aware is pending, especially more than a year or two after the accident that caused the injury occurred.
Where no statute is listed on the following chart, it is probable that there is simply not a specific statute governing the situation. In these cases, a general civil statute of limitation most likely applies. For example, in cases of medical malpractice, the statute of limitation may just as easily be covered by the statute governing personal injury.
From When to When?
There are many interesting controversies about when statutes of limitation begin and end. In many cases, the injured party may not even know he was wronged until a great while after the wrong was committed. This is often true in the case of breach of contract or fraud, and it often arises, perhaps surprisingly, in cases of personal injury or medical malpractice. In the case of certain surgical procedures, the party may not know that, for example, a sponge was left in his abdomen or something else was done improperly—until years later. There has also been much controversy, now largely settled by statute, about whether the statute should begin to run when the wrong was committed or when it was discovered. Court decisions have largely gone in favor of the injured party, allowing the statute to start running upon discovery of the injury or when the injury or act of negligence should “reasonably have been discovered.”
Most states “toll” or stop the statute of limitation upon the incapacity of the injured party. But there are a number of ways a person can be incapacitated. If the person has been committed to a mental hospital or is out of the country, these may toll the statute of limitation until they either regain their mental facilities or return from abroad.
Overall, the statutes of limitation are fair and reasonable limitations of potentially disruptive and always distracting legal action between parties. Dramatic stories about lawyers rushing to file papers before the statute runs out are almost always due to the injured party’s (or the party’s attorney’s) procrastination or negligence.