Statute of Limitations What is the Statute of Limitations?

What is the Statute of Limitations? Why is it necessary? This article is a transcript of the legal presentation covering the Statute of Limitations.

What is the Statute of Limitations?

The Statute of Limitations is a law which limits the amount of time after something happens for which a case may be filed in a court of law. In Criminal law, it's generally the amount of time after a crime for which a prosecutor may file criminal charges against a defendant. In civil law it's the amount of time that a lawsuit may be filed by person or a company after suffering an injury or some type of damages. If a case isn't filed within that period of time prescribed by the law, the ability to prosecute that case is gone forever. Today I'm primarily going to talk about civil lawsuits but you should be able to easily apply it to criminal matters.

How Much Time do You Have to File Under the Statute?

The amount of time available to file under the statute of limitations will usually depend upon two things: (i) the type of injury suffered or the type of crime committed, and (ii) the law in the jurisdiction that applies to the case. For example, I live in New York City. If someone trespassed onto my property and damaged my fence, I would have 3 years to bring a lawsuit either for trespass or for property damages. Now let's say I was involved in a car accident and I suffered a whiplash injury. I would have 3 years to bring a personal injury lawsuit. Now here's the twist. Let's say that car accident occurred just a few miles away in the state of New Jersey. Even for that same whiplash injury, I would only have two years to bring a personal injury lawsuit in the state of New Jersey.

Exceptions and the Notice of Claim

Calculating the amount time you have to file under the statute of limitations is not always simple. In fact, it can be so complex that it probably warrants a completely separate discussion. But I do want to briefly the fact that exceptions may apply which can reduce or extend the amount of time you have to file. Let's briefly discuss the latter. If you intend to sue a government such as a state, city or a municipality, you'll probably need to file what is called a "notice of claim." This alerts someone in the big government machine that it needs to find an employee to investigate the facts and circumstances and the conditions surrounding someone's lawsuit. For example, let's say you suffered a personal injury. Let's say that injury occurred in the state of California. You'd generally need to file a notice of claim within 6 months after the injury. (See Cal. Government Code Sec. 910) But if that same injury occurred within New York City, you'd have to file a notice of claim within 90 days. (See General Municipal Law Section 50-e)

Why do We Have the Statute of Limitations?

Judicial Efficiency

The first reason for having a statute of limitations I'll describe as a matter of "Judicial Efficiency". The courts are already burdened with far more cases than can probably be managed effectively. In order to make sure that cases which deserve to be heard ever make it to court within a reasonable period of time, the law needs to be able to filter out weak cases that probably represent a waste of the court's limited time and resources. Let me explain. In a typical lawsuit, a judge will often hear very different facts represented by a plaintiff and a defendant. How does the court determine the truth about what probably happened? Through the use of reliable and relevant evidence, the court is able to figure out what probably happened and make a good decision. And if there isn't good evidence available in a case, then hearing it would probably be futile and it wouldn't be an effective use of the court's limited resources. I'll give you two quick examples of reliable evidence.

Eyewitness Testimony

A person with perfect eyesight in broad daylight testifies that he clearly saw the driver of the black car run a red light and strike the white car.

Physical Evidence

A fresh blood sample is drawn from a suspected drunk driver at a DUI checkpoint.

With reliable evidence you can have reasonable certainty in figuring out what probably happened. But after a period of time, the memory of eye witnesses begins to fade and get hazy and they don't quite remember exactly what happened. Physical evidence can spoil. It can decompose or become tainted. And with the passage of time, evidence can become so unreliable that there is no point in wasting anyone's time making poor guesses about what might have happened many years ago.

The Defendant's Right of Repose

The second reason for having a statute of limitations I'll call the defendant's "right of repose." The law recognizes that after a significant period of time has passed after a dispute, a defendant should be afforded with the peace of mind that they will not have to face a lawsuit any longer. The statute of limitations basically sends a message to the plaintiff: Get serious or get lost! So if you're not going to sue within a reasonable period of time, the defendant is going to be released from any claim that you have.
Lawsuits, Disputes
Statute Of Limitations
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Michael Wechsler
Michael M. Wechsler is an experienced attorney, founder of, A. Research Scholar at Columbia Business School and of-counsel to Kaplan, Williams & Graffeo, LLC. He was also an SVP and chief Internet strategist at and legal consultant at Kroll Ontrack, a leading service e-discovery and computer forensics service provider.


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