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Q What Does The Statue Of Limitations Mean And How Do I Avoid It

February 18, 2016

A: The Statute of Limitations is a law (actually a series) which states that a legal action must be filed with the Court by a certain date, or it is too late and the action is permanently barred.

The Statute of Limitations applies to both criminal actions and civil actions. For example, the prosecutor must file criminal charges within a certain amount of time after a crime occurs. Similarly, a lawsuit must be filed within a certain time of a someone being injured by negligence. If the statute applies, it is absolute. However, it has lots of exceptions which often apply to save a legal action from being barred.

Clients and friends have asked me many of the same questions over the course of my career. This is one in an ongoing series of “lawyer questions and answers”. Hopefully, this will be useful to you, or at least interesting.
In criminal law, the Statute is suspended during times that the defendant has fled the jurisdiction.
In civil law, for example, the running of the Statute of Limitations is “tolled” (suspended) for infants or incompetents during the time of their infancy or incompetency. People are generally considered “infants” until they are 18 years old. In New Jersey, for example, the Statute of Limitations on a negligence action begins to run on an infant’s 18th birthday, and it extends for two years, so a negligence suit must be filed by the infant’s 20th birthday. Incompetents are people who, because of their condition, are unable to look out for their own affairs, and the Statue of Limitations clock does not tick while they are in that condition.
Another exception to the Statute of Limitations is the so-called “discovery rule”. That rule means that the Statute of Limitations is suspended, and does not begin running until a person knows, or reasonably should know that someone has harmed them. What am I talking about? Here’s an example. Peter Patient submits to abdominal surgery with Dr. Sawbones who informs him, when he wakes up that the surgery was a success. Nonetheless, for the next three years Peter Patient has a stabbing pain in his abdomen. Finally, 3+ years later Peter has an x-ray which shows that Dr. Sawbones left a pair of scissors inside him, and that is where the pain has come from. The Statute of Limitations expired two years after the surgery right? No. Peter’s lawsuit against Dr. Sawbones is saved by the discovery rule. He did not discover Dr. Sawbone’s negligence until after the expiration of the Statute of Limitations.
So there are all sorts of exceptions to the harsh effect of the Statute of Limitations. But if a case does not fall within one of those exceptions, it must be filed with court within the time allowed. It is not enough to consult an attorney during that time frame, or decide to go forward within that time frame. It must be filed with the court.
The Statue of Limitations exists to encourage people to act expeditiously on legal rights. It is considered unfair to submit a case to trial after a long period of time when witness memories have faded, people have died or disappeared, etc. So be careful!
Jack Hoyt, Esq.

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