Some people wait a long time before approaching a lawyer with a potential case. When something terrible happens, a long, expensive, exhausting process may not be a person’t priority. But when people do come to a lawyer, no matter how valid their claim may be, it may not be successful if they waited too long. This is because statutes of limitation cause claims to expire.

Why should you read this post about statutes of limitation?

  • If you don’t read it in the next few years, you may lose the chance to ever read it.

  • You’re not sure if Kramer or Elaine was correct about what to call this legal concept.

  • You don’t understand why a court isn’t considering a valid claim, or is considering an old one.

Image Credit. Every day you don’t file a lawsuit is another grain of sand, falling in an hourglass.

Image Credit. Every day you don’t file a lawsuit is another grain of sand, falling in an hourglass.

How Long Do I Have to Sue Someone?

Like many legal questions, the answer is “it depends.” Different claims have different statutes of limitations and different jurisdictions have different statutes, too, even for the same claims. For example, in New York, a breach of contract claim expires six years after a breach. In Indiana, it could be ten years depending on the subject of the contract. (This is one reason why litigants may fight over which court to litigate in or which law applies to their case) Back in New York, a personal injury case expires in three years. In France, it could be ten years.

Sometime multiple claims can arise from the same incident. In that case, the statute of limitations can expire for one claim, but not for the others, leaving a plaintiff with fewer legal options than if they had brought the claim earlier.

Of course, you can still sue someone, even if the statute of limitations expired. But the defendant may move to dismiss the case immediately on the grounds that the limitations period expired. Even if your case is meritorious, and the defendant really ought to pay the plaintiff for the damage it caused, the court will likely dismiss the claim. And, if the defendant wins, it may have a good argument for why the plaintiff should reimburse some of its costs for bringing a frivolous lawsuit.

Equitable Tolls

Even though courts may strictly apply the statute of limitations, there are some situations where a court will be kinder to a plaintiff pursuant to a doctrine called equitable tolling.

In one type of equitable toll, a court may extend the statute of limitation if the defendant herself caused the delay in the plaintiff bringing the case. For example, if the defendant concealed evidence of her breach or somehow caused the plaintiff to be unable to file a lawsuit, the plaintiff may argue that the defendant should not benefit from their own interference. But this toll may not last forever; a court may start the limitations period once the plaintiff could have brought suit, even if the defendant had interfered.

In another kind of equitable toll, the court or a statute may extend the statute of limitations when the plaintiff did not learn about her injury until after the period would have otherwise expired. For example, a plaintiff who develops an illness many years after exposure to asbestos may be able to sue because the limitations period may begin upon discovery of the injury in certain circumstances.

Other Ways Around The Statute of Limitations

Since the statute of limitations is an affirmative defense, a defendant can waive it. So if you have a claim, but are concerned about it expiring, you may enter into an agreement with a defendant to extend or even waive the statute of limitations altogether, if they agree. But, conversely, in some cases you may agree to be bound by a shorter limitations period as well.

Another thing you can do is apply a statutory toll. Some laws push back the statute of limitations in certain circumstances. For example, at the start of the covid-19 pandemic, many states issued orders that paused the statute of limitations on claims that would have expired at the time. In another example, New York recently passed a law that extends the statute of limitations for victims of child sexual abuse until their fifty-fifth birthday.

A plaintiff may also file a complaint before the statute expires. Then, when she understands the claim better, she may amend the complaint. The amended complaint may then assert a claim whose limitations period had expired, so long as it had not expired at the time the plaintiff filed the original complaint.