What are the Statutes of Limitation?

A statute of limitation is a law enacted by a state or the Federal Government which sets the maximum period which can elapse during which a lawsuit may be filed. The periods vary by jurisdiction. The limitations can range from as little as six months to twenty-one years for certain causes of action in some jurisdictions.  If the lawsuit or claim is not filed before the statutory deadline, the right to sue or make a claim may be forever barred.  In some instances a statute of limitations can be extended or “tolled” based on delay in discovery of the injury or on reasonable reliance on a trusted person. A minor’s right to bring an action is usually tolled until the minor turns 18.  There are also statutes of limitations on bringing criminal charges, but  homicide crimes generally have no time limitation on prosecution.

In Pennsylvania different types of lawsuits are subject to different statutes of limitation. For example, a case for libel or slander, sometimes called “defamation”, must be brought within one year following the alleged defamatory conduct. This is a relatively short limitation period. Most personal injury cases such as injuries arising out of a car accident; slip and fall; medical malpractice, and damages caused to personal or real property generally must be brought within two years following the event causing the injury or damage.

Lawsuits for breach of contract, whether the contract is an oral or a written agreement, in most cases, are subject to a four- year limitation period. As a result, if you have a claim for a breach of contract, you must bring suit within four years following the date of the alleged breach or termination of the contract.

In limited circumstances, the running of a statute of limitation will not begin until you have had a reasonable opportunity to discover that you have been injured. For instance, in the medical malpractice example of the surgeon leaving a sponge in the patient, the patient’s time to begin a suit would begin when he or she discovered there was a sponge inside him or her.

These are general rules. The policy behind statutes of limitation is to encourage prompt resolution of disputes and protect possible defendants from indefinite exposure. Additionally, witnesses and evidence are more readily available when they are temporally close to the incidents that give rise to the cause of action; memories fade with time, and potential witnesses die.

If you have a claim, or if you think you have a claim, take prompt action to protect your rights. Contact us to find out if your claim is still within the limitation period.

— J. Ken Butera


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