Overview of the Statute of Limitations

CalendarThe function of a statute of limitations is to terminate a right to sue or press a claim for compensation. It is a defensive tool. The statute sets forth the last permissible date to file a lawsuit in court which also means the last date to demand compensation. The term “statute of limitations” is sometimes also used to describe the final date that a person can provide notice of a claim against a doctor, hospital, or governmental entity. “File a lawsuit” means file a lawsuit, not just a report or an insurance claim. “Provide notice of a claim” means to give a writtten notice containing specific information required by law.

In no sense does a statute of limitations tell you the best time to file suit. It only tells you the last time you can do so. The best time to file suit is when the facts are fresh, the witnesses are alive and living close by, and the victim arouses sympathy. Dog bite cases in particular need to be pursued immediately, because it is difficult for people to remember, years later, the date when a certain dog bit someone or started roaming the streets without a leash. Similarly, when the victim is a child, a jury will want to help him get over his dog bite and will award sufficient compensation to do so, but if he is testifying as an adult and talking about how he got bitten as a child, a jury usually feels very little motivation to “make things right.”

The oldest trick in the book is for an insurance adjuster to tell the parents of an injured child that nothing needs to be done until many years later, based on the fact that the statute of limitations allows kids to wait until they grow up before filing suit. It is a technically true statement but it will surely defeat the victim’s claim for compensation, because the witnesses will not remember details, the dog owners probably will have moved out of the neighborhood, and the grown-up, injured child will have become an unsympathetic teen or 20-something that the jury will think has gotten money-hungry.

Nevertheless, it is important to be aware of the existence of the statute of limitations because otherwise one might inadvertently neglect to file the lawsuit in a timely manner. Unfortunately, these statutes are always complicated — there are exceptions to the rules and exceptions to the exceptions. For that reason, the only rules of thumb are the following:

  • If there is a chance that a government agency or employee, or a humane society or SPCA, might be legally responsible for the dog bite victim’s losses, the victim can count on only 60 days from the incident date to make a claim in the manner required by law, for which reason he should retain an attorney to make his claim immediately after the date of the injury. Note that the victim might have much longer than that — a lawyer has to determine exactly how long.
  • If there is no chance that any of those parties mentioned above might be legally responsible, the victim can count on one year from the date of incident to file the lawsuit in court, for which reason he should retain an attorney to make his claim within 10 months from the date of the injury. Again, an adult victim might have as long as 6 years to make the claim, and a child victim might have decades to do it — a lawyer has to determine exactly how much time the victim has.

The rules of thumb given above are no substitute for the actual statute of limitations. See the next sections of this topic to learn what the real statute for your jurisdiction says. You might learn that it allows suit after many years. Additionally, do not give up hope if your research leads to the conclusion that you waited too long. There are many exceptions to the statute of limitations, so if it presents you with a problem, see a lawyer right away!