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Legalese 101: What's a Statute of Limitations?

By Stephanie Rabiner, Esq. | Last updated on

We here at FindLaw know that legal jargon can be confusing. We hear people misusing legal words and phrases all the time. So we've decided to help you better understand all the legal phrases tossed around on Law & Order. Here is a new educational series we like to call FindLaw's Legalese 101.

Picture it. You're walking along the street when you come across a hideous sculpture. It's got high up shelves that only the tallest of the tall can reach. It's got that pair of jeans you just can't fit into. It's got a glass ceiling. And it's draped in yellow tape warning you not to get too close. It's a mixed-media piece, okay?

After a few minutes, it all makes sense. It's a Statue of Limitations!

Wait, what? This is Legalese 101, not Hideous Art for 1,000, Alex.

Statute of limitations is one of the most misunderstood legal phrases out there, often conjuring up images of the thankfully non-existent art above. It, however, has nothing to do with art, and everything to do with time.

Simply put, a statute of limitations is the time period a prosecutor or a person has to bring a claim against a defendant. Generally speaking, that time period starts when the injury or crime occurred, but in some circumstances may begin when the harm is discovered.

As for how long of a time period someone may have under the relevant statute of limitations, it depends. Every crime and injury has a specific time limit, which means it varies from case to case. Additionally, every state has a different statute of limitations for the same crime or injury. If the time period passes without a lawsuit being filed, there is no longer a right to sue.

So, the next time you hear someone discussing a statute of limitations, think of the limit part, not the statute, and you'll be right on track.

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