We have all heard the adage, “If you snooze, you lose” when talking about missed opportunities. Consequently, this applies to filing a lawsuit as well. In civil law there are time limits in which a plaintiff must file a lawsuit or they will be forever barred from doing so. These laws are set by each state, creating deadlines for going to court and getting the claim filed. The time limits are called statute of limitations.
Statute of limitations do not have a one-size fits all maximum time limit. Each state will have its own time limits, and within each state the time limit will vary depending on the type of claim. For example, time limits in one state may allow a plaintiff who has a personal injury claim (such as injuries from a car accident) two years from the date of injury to file a lawsuit, while allowing a plaintiff that has a breach of contract claim (such as failure to make good on a promissory note) five years from the date of breach to file a lawsuit. However, in another state a plaintiff with a personal injury claim may have only one year to sue, and plaintiffs with a breach of contract claim may have three years to sue.
Additionally, the statute of limitations will vary depending on if it is a state or federal claim, and if you are filing a claim against the government, government agency or government employee. Unlike filing a claim against a company or an individual, filing a claim against the government usually has an accelerated time limit. Because the government has written the rules, they have made it particularly difficult to sue them. Depending on the type of claim and the state that you live in, plaintiffs usually have between 30 days to a year to file a claim.
To give a good example of how much variation there is within a state depending on what claim it is, here are the statute of limitations for various actions within Arizona:
- Personal Injury: 2 years
- Violent Sexual Assault: 7 years
- Libel or Slander: 1 year
- Breach of a written contract: 6 years
- Property Damage: 2 years
- Breach of an oral contract: 3 years
Statute of limitations may begin to run in several different ways. The most common are:
- The date in which the harm was first discovered: In some situations, the plaintiff’s injury may lie dormant, and will be discovered weeks or months after the accident. An example is a plaintiff that has been injured in a car accident in which they later find that they have a back or neck injury. Another example is hidden property damage that may not be found until inspection.
- The date of the harm: An example of this is that the statute of limitations will begin running the day a plaintiff is involved in an automobile accident that causes property damage to their vehicle.
- The date in which you should have discovered the harm: Although this is less common, in some instances the statute of limitations will start when the plaintiff should have discovered the harm, instead of when they actually did.
- Laws regarding tolling: Tolling is the suspension of the statute of limitations in instances when the plaintiff is out of state, insane or a minor (under the age of 18).
- Distinguishing between statute of limitations and statutes of repose: A statute of repose provides a date after which an action is barred regardless of whether the injury or damage has been discovered. A statute of repose qualifies a statutory right that is unknown at common law, by creating a period of time within which the right may be asserted. This is distinguished from a statute of limitations, which may be asserted as an affirmative defense. Examples of statutes of repose are actions against architects, land surveyors and medical-care providers.
Because being involved in an accident or lawsuit can be stressful and complicated, it is important to consider the nature and severity of your damages (past and future). While considering your state’s statute of limitations for your particular damages, plaintiffs should be aware of the current damages that they have suffered as well as what future damages they may face before filing a lawsuit. Even minor injuries may have a significant impact on your life in the future. Additionally, more severe injuries may need medical treatment for weeks, months, or even a lifetime. Plaintiffs need to make sure they assess past and future damages while still keeping their state’s statute of limitations in mind before filing a lawsuit.
It is also important to know the difference between filing a claim with the defendant’s insurance company and filing a lawsuit with an attorney. An insurance claim does not involve an attorney, and is between the victim and the defendant’s insurance company. The victim would pursue the defendant, who would turn the matter over to their insurance company.The victim would then, through a series of negotiations, reach a settlement with an insurance adjuster.
However, a lawsuit involves an attorney and may be filed any time after the damages occurred. Many times the victim will begin negotiations with the insurance company but find that they are initially unwilling to pay the full amount of damages so they contact an attorney. The attorney will then be the point of contact with the insurance company and it’s adjusters. It is important to note that any time (before, during, or after) during the insurance claim process the victim may contact and attorney. Furthermore, depending on the complexity of your situation, and the confusing nature of each state’s statute of limitations, contacting an experienced attorney from the outset may be to your advantage.
 Comstock v. Collier, 737 P.2d 845 (Colo. 1987).
 First Interstate Bank of Denver, N.A. v. Central Bank & Trust Co. of Denver, 937 P.2d 855 (Colo. App. 1996).