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Is There a Time Limit to File a Lawsuit? What Are Statutes of Limitations?

Lawyer adding papers to a briefcase in a courtroom.

The quick answer is: it depends.

There are definite time limits regarding how late you can file a lawsuit after a triggering event. These time limits are known as statutes of limitations. The time periods depend entirely on the nature of the case and the state laws where your case is heard.

The limitations periods in federal court may differ from state court.

Some claims can expire as quickly as a year after the event. Other claims can be filed decades later. If you are considering filing a lawsuit, contact an attorney to determine the statute of limitations in your case.

When do statutes of limitation start? Can I still sue after 10 years?

There are several different ways that the statute of limitations clock may start, but here are three of the most common:

  • The date of harm: The date of injury in a car accident is typically when the clock begins for the statute of limitations in a personal injury lawsuit or property damage lawsuit. It does not matter whether you are suing the other driver or the insurance company.
  • The date you first discover the harm: Sometimes, the harm may lie dormant for a while, and only later do you discover that you suffered harm. A good example is hidden damage to personal property or real estate that you may not find until a property inspection at the end of a rental period. This breach of contract is the cause of action to begin a lawsuit.
  • The date you should have discovered the harm: This is a less common standard, but in some cases, the clock starts on a legal claim when you should have discovered the harm, not when you actually did.

In some cases, ten years would be too long to bring a lawsuit. In others, such as medical issues that don't appear immediately, you might still be able to sue. An attorney is the best person to help you understand your case and the time limits.

How long are statutes of limitations?

There are no general rules related to the time period to file a case. However, you almost always have at least a year to file a civil lawsuit. Depending on the type of case or civil action, it could be much longer. Different statutes of limitations apply to different types of cases and causes of action.

You have plenty of time to research the relevant laws and find a lawyer, but it's wise not to procrastinate. It takes time for a trial attorney to review the facts of a case, provide legal advice, and prepare a court case. You want to make sure to meet all deadlines.

Can I sue after the statute of limitations?

You can't sue after the statute of limitations runs out, but there are situations where the statute of limitations begins late.

For example, in a case of medical malpractice, the injury may have occurred weeks, months, or possibly years before the harm and cause of harm are discovered. The clock starts when the harm is detected.

If a personal injury claim involves a minor, the statute of limitations generally begins when the young person turns 18.

There are also situations in which the statute of limitations pauses for a period of time. The clock on the case could temporarily toll if the person bringing the case became mentally impaired or if the person against whom the claim is filed left the state.

How long do I have to sue a government agency?

Government agencies are the exception to the general rule. Because the government writes the rules, they have made it particularly difficult to sue them.

Sometimes, you have as little as 60 days to file a federal lawsuit. In other cases, you must file an administrative complaint before filing a lawsuit.

How long is the statute of limitations for a lawsuit in California?

There is a lot of variation in statutes of limitations. It typically depends on the types of claims.

To give you an example, here are the statute of limitations for some civil cases in California:

As another example, see the statutes of limitations for personal injury cases in all 50 states. The amount of time ranges from one year in Kentucky to six years in Maine.

I'm being sued for something that happened years ago. Is that allowed?

It depends on whether the statute of limitations has run for the type of case filed against you. Judges will not automatically throw out a case because the statute of limitations has run out.

You must expressly bring the statute of limitations to the judge's attention. Your trial lawyer can use this as an affirmative defense to the claims against you.

How long can a lawsuit last?

The statute of limitations determines when a case must be filed. However, once a claim is filed with the appropriate court, the deadline does not apply to the actual court case. A lawsuit can take days or years to wind its way through the courts.

Ask an Attorney if You Can Bring a Case to Court

If you have suffered physical or financial harm and believe you are due compensation, talk with a local trial attorney or a personal injury attorney about whether you can take legal action to bring your case to court. Your attorney can advise you on the statute of limitations and applicable rules of civil procedure for your claim in your state.

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