What is a Statute of Limitations?

What is a Statute of Limitations?

Updated on October 28, 2019

A statute of limitations is the specific time period a plaintiff is allowed to bring a lawsuit against a defendant.  If the plaintiff files a lawsuit beyond that time period, the defendant can get the case dismissed on the ground that the statute of limitations has already expired.  The time period ranges depending on the type of lawsuit the plaintiff is filing.  For example, in California, if the plaintiff is suing for breach of a written contract, then the plaintiff must file the lawsuit within four years of the breach.  On the other hand, if the plaintiff is suing for breach of an oral contract, then the plaintiff only has two years from the date of breach to file the lawsuit.  Other examples of common statutes of limitation include: fraud – 3 years; negligence – 2 years; and trespass – 3 years.

The statute of limitations on certain causes of action may not be triggered by the date of the actual incident.  In these cases, the statute of limitations starts to run upon the plaintiff’s discovery of the injury.  For example, a defendant may have defrauded a plaintiff in 2006.  However, the plaintiff may not have known about the fraud in 2006.  Instead, the plaintiff discovered the fraud in 2007.  In that instance, the statute of limitations does not begin at the time of the fraud in 2006 but at the time that the plaintiff discovered the fraud in 2007.  Because fraud has a 3-year statute of limitations, the plaintiff has until 2010 to file a lawsuit against the defendant.  This is called the delayed discovery rule.   Often times, delayed discovered because of an issue for the trier of fact to resolve – one more item in dispute in the lawsuit.

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Courts apply statutes of limitation very strictly.  Therefore, if the Court determines that the statute of limitations has run on a certain cause of action, then the Court will likely dismiss the case.  The reason behind this strict application of the statutes of limitation is very simple.  The legislature does not want potential defendants to be perpetually in fear of being sued on a particular claim or arising out of a particular incident.  Moreover, people have only a limited memory of events that have transpired in the past.  The longer a plaintiff waits to file a lawsuit, the more he/she will forget.  This is the same for the defendant.  Therefore, if statutes of limitation did not exist, then it means a plaintiff can potentially wait 20-30 years, or more, before filing a lawsuit against the defendant.  By that time, both parties will likely have forgotten everything that happened, the majority of documents and other evidence will likely have been destroyed, and most or all witnesses will be gone or will also have forgotten everything that happened.

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Therefore, as a plaintiff, it is very important to not wait too long before filing a lawsuit against a defendant.  The longer the plaintiff waits, the more likely it is that the plaintiff will lose his/her chance to sue even if they have an otherwise strong claim on the merits.

See related: Statutes of Limitation for Quiet Title Claims