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Will the Pandemic Affect Statutes of Limitations?

Statute of limitations
By Maddy Teka, Esq. | Last updated on

Just as the COVID-19 pandemic devastated businesses and people's public and private lives, it has affected the civil and criminal justice systems as well. As a result, calls to toll (delay or pause) statutes of limitations have been made on several state and federal levels.

What Is a Statute of Limitations?

In simple words, a statute of limitations is the time you have to file a lawsuit. The exact time depends on where you live and the type of claim you have.

For instance, one state may give someone four years to bring contract lawsuits but only one year for tort (injury) cases. Another state, on the other hand, may do the opposite and give four years for tort cases and one year for contract-related lawsuits. So, it is important that you are aware of the laws that apply in your state. (For detailed statute of limitations laws in your state, please visit our state statute of limitations page.)

COVID-19 and Statutes of Limitations

Stay-at-home orders and social distancing are in effect in several states, meaning courts are either closed or operating on a reduced schedule. Most courts are also conducting court appearances and meetings remotely to minimize the risk of transmission.

So what does this mean for you? You may be considering when you should bring a lawsuit or wondering if the statute of limitations passed on a case you thought would come your way. It can also affect you if you are in the criminal defense system (if you are in jail awaiting trial, or have a criminal case coming up).

How States Responded in the Past

Although COVID-19 is an unprecedented pandemic, tolling statutes of limitations when a disaster strikes is not a new concept for the courts. The extension of the statutes of limitations during the civil war is one notable example. The statutes of limitations were also extended in states after September 11, 2001.

What States Are Doing Now

Some actions governmental entities are doing to extend the statutes of limitations amid the COVID-19 pandemic include:

  • The Department of Justice is looking into temporarily extending the statutes of limitations for some civil and criminal matters.
  • Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York tolled the statutes of limitations in the state until April 19, 2020.
  • The Iowa Supreme Court has issued an order tolling the statutes of limitations from March 17 to May 4.
  • The Kansas legislature passed a bill giving the Supreme Court the authority to toll the statutes of limitations if it believes to be necessary to protect the health of judicial officers. The Supreme Court, accordingly, ordered all statutes of limitations tolled until further notice.
  • Some high courts gave lower courts the discretion to toll the statutes of limitations. The Texas Supreme Court, for instance, gave all lower courts the ability to toll the statute of limitations for civil cases for a specific period.

Tolling Statutes of Limitations: What It Means

You should note that tolling doesn't mean the statute of limitations will be extended indefinitely. Rather, it is just an interruption that prevents the applicable laws from expiring during the pandemic.

What You Can Do

States and the federal government are struggling to come up with rules regarding the statutes of limitations during this pandemic. In the meantime, you should:

  • Research your state's law and see if it has passed legislation that extends the statute of limitations period.
  • If your state has not extended the statute of limitations period, be sure to document every fact that prevented you from filing your case. Courts do have the authority to extend statutory periods for things that are beyond the plaintiff's control.
  • Speak to an experienced attorney to learn what your options are.

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