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

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The quick answer is: it depends.

There are definite time limits regarding how late you can file a lawsuit after a triggering event. It depends entirely on the nature of the case and the state laws where your case is heard. Or if the case will be heard in federal court, on federal law.

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

When Do Statutes of Limitations Start? Can I Still Sue After 10 Years?

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

  • The "date of harm": For example, 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 doesn't 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 were harmed. A good example of this 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 right away, 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 Limitation Generally?

It's hard to find a general number, but it's safe to say that you almost always have at least a year to file a civil lawsuit. Depending on the type of case, it could be much longer.

You have plenty of time to research the relevant laws and find a lawyer. But don't procrastinate. It takes time for a trial attorney to review the facts of a case and prepare a court case. You don't want to miss a deadline.

Can I Sue After the Statute of Limitations?

No, 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.

And if a car accident injury lawsuit involves a minor, the statute of limitations begins when the young person turns 18.

There are also situations in which the statute of limitations is paused. The clock on the case could temporarily stop if the person bringing the case became mentally impaired or if the person whom the case is being brought against left the state.

How Long Do I Have to Sue a Government Agency?

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

In some instances, you have as little as 60 days to file a federal lawsuit. In other cases, you are required to 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:

  • Personal injury: Two years
  • Wrongful death: Two years
  • Libel or slander: One year
  • Domestic violence: Three years
  • Medical malpractice: Three years
  • Breach of written contract: Four years
  • Breach of oral contract: Two years
  • Childhood sexual abuse: Eight years from the child's 18th birthday, or three years after discovering that some injury resulted from childhood sexual abuse, regardless of the victim's age

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 out for the type of case being brought against you. Typically, judges will not automatically throw out a case because the statute of limitations has run out.

You have to expressly bring it 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. But once a case is filed with the appropriate court, the deadline isn't applicable 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 you want compensation, talk with a local trial attorney about whether you can take legal action to bring your case to court.

Your attorney can advise you on the statute of limitations for your particular case in your state.

You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help

Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.

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