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Is There a Time Limit to File a Lawsuit? What Are Statutes of Limitations?

Yes, there are definite time limits to file a lawsuit. It depends entirely upon the state you're in (or federal law) and what the offense is. Some claims may expire as quickly as a year after the event in question took place. Other claims can be filed decades later (tax fraud, for instance). If you are considering filing a lawsuit, contact an attorney or check the relevant laws to find out what the statute of limitations is in your case.

When Do Statutes of Limitations Start?

There are several different ways that a statute of limitation may start, but here are the most common three:

  • The "date of harm": For example, the day you have a traffic accident will typically start the statute of limitations for suing someone regarding property damage to your car.
  • The date you first discover the harm: Sometimes the harm may lie dormant for awhile, and you discover that you were harmed at a later time. A good example of this is hidden property damage that you may not find out about until an inspection.
  • The date you should have discovered the harm: This is a less common standard, but in some instances the clock starts when you should have discovered the harm, not when you actually did.

How Long Are Statutes of Limitation Generally?

It's hard to find a general number, but it's safe to say that you almost always have at least a year to file a lawsuit. So you have plenty of time to research the relevant laws and find a lawyer, but don't procrastinate because certain lawsuits need to be filed within this one year period. The exception to this is if you are suing a government agency (see next).

How Long Do I Have to Sue a Government Agency?

Government agencies are the exception to the rule. Because the government writes the rules, they've made it particularly difficult to sue them. In some instances you have as little as 60 days to file a lawsuit, and in some cases you are required to file an administrative complaint before filing a lawsuit.

What Are Some Statutes of Limitations for California?

To give you a good example of how much variation there is depending on what the claim is, here are the statutes of limitations for some actions within California:

  • Personal injury: Two years.
  • Libel or slander: One year.
  • Domestic violence: Three years.
  • Medical malpractice: Three years.
  • Breach of written contract: Four years.
  • Breach of oral contract: Two years.
  • Childhood sexual abuse: Eight years from the child's 18th birthday or three years after discovering that some injury resulted from childhood sexual abuse regardless of the victim's age.

I'm Being Sued for Something that Happened Years Ago, Is That Allowed?

It depends on whether the statute of limitations has run on whatever you're being charged with. Typically, however, judges will not automatically throw out a case due to a statute of limitations having run. You have to expressly bring it up with the judge, asserting it as an "affirmative defense" to the claims in the lawsuit.

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