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Statute of Limitations: Out of Time, Out of Luck

Jul 8, 2008
Protect your rights in a lawsuit by understanding the specifics of Pennsylvania's Statutes of Limitations.

If you are thinking about filing a lawsuit, timing is crucial. The rule of law called the Statute of Limitations requires that a lawsuit be filed within a certain period of time and, if it is not, the injured party loses the right to seek recovery. Knowing about the rule and how to apply it are critical to protecting your legal rights.

The Purpose of the Rule
A Statute of Limitations assigns a certain time period after which rights cannot be enforced in court. The general purpose of the Statute of Limitations is to compel the exercise of rights within a reasonable time period, to prevent stale or fraudulent claims, to expedite litigation, to give a defendant prompt notice of the claims against it, and to avoid placing an unfair disadvantage on the defendant by reason of a lapse of time. If no such rule existed, an injured party (plaintiff) could wait years before filing a lawsuit, thereby resulting in lost evidence or witnesses who are no longer available or have faded memories.

Specific Statutes of Limitations
The length of the Statute of Limitations is determined by the Legislature and is dependent on the type of case. Since laws constantly change and there are often special rules for each specific case, consult a lawyer immediately after an incident to learn the time limit for bringing an action. The following are some common statutes of limitations:

One year: slander, libel and invasion of privacy;
Two years: personal injury or wrongful death claims (including automobile accident cases) and property damage claims;
Four years: breach of contract claims; and
Six years: consumer fraud cases

The "Discovery Rule"
The general rule is that the Statute of Limitations time period begins to run as soon as the event leading to the claim occurs (i.e. the date of the auto accident or the date that the breach of contract occurs). However, in certain circumstances where the plaintiff is unable to determine that an injury has occurred, the Statute of Limitations does not begin to run -- or is "tolled" -- until the injury is discovered.

For example, if a doctor committed malpractice by leaving a surgical instrument in a plaintiff's body during surgery and the plaintiff did not discover the injury for two months, the Statute of Limitations would not begin to run until the date of discovery. Nevertheless, the plaintiff is required to exercise reasonable diligence in determining whether an injury has occurred.

Stopping the Statute from Running
In order to stop the Statute of Limitations from running and preserve the claim, a plaintiff must file a lawsuit in court. Merely notifying the defendant is insufficient. Papers must be filed in court and then must be served on the defendant to provide notification of the claim.
About the Author
Tim Rayne is the author of numerous publications on Personal Injury Law and is a graduate of the Temple University Beasley School of Law's Master's in Trial Advocacy Program. Tim can be reached at http://www.macelree.com/traynelaw.
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