A statute of limitations is a special kind of statute that limits the time in which a plaintiff who has a claim can bring that claim in the courts. For this reason, the statute of limitations can be raised as a defense – basically, the defendant can argue that the court should not hear the claim because the plaintiff did not bring it within the prescribed time period. While this may seem unfair at first, the policy behind these kinds of statutes makes a lot of sense. The statutes prevent claims from coming into the courts when a claim is stale, after witnesses have forgotten facts, and after evidence has become more difficult to obtain.
Different kinds of claims have different statutes of limitations, and there can be different “triggers” for a statute of limitation to start to “run.” Usually, this happens when the claim accrues. A statute of limitation can be triggered by an injury (such as with a claim that arises from a vehicle accident) or by the discovery of an injury (such as with a medical malpractice claim). In Florida, the statute of limitations usually “runs”, or lasts, four years for most injuries but can vary due to different circumstances. For claims of libel, slander, or medical malpractice, the statute of limitations is just two years. However, it is important to note that statutes of limitation vary by state, and different rules about which statute of limitations apply can affect claims that occur between parties from different states or when claims arise across state lines.
Because the statute of limitations can bar a claim, it is crucial for plaintiffs to preserve a claim by filing suit or taking action within the limitations period. However, there are exceptions to the statute of limitations. Sometimes, a court will “toll” the statute of limitations, and recognize a period of time as not counting against the time a plaintiff has to file a claim. Typical reasons for tolling a statute of limitations include: minority (the victim of the injury was a minor at the time the injury occurred), mental incompetence (the victim of the injury was not mentally competent at the time the injury occurred), and the defendant’s bankruptcy (the "automatic stay" in bankruptcy ordinarily tolls the statute of limitations until such time as the bankruptcy is resolved or the stay is lifted). A court will apply exceptions based not only on the statute, but on case law that has interpreted those statutes. If you have questions about how the statute of limitations may affect your claim, you may wish to consult an attorney. Often, it is best to receive advice about potential claims relatively soon after the injury occurs or otherwise the claim accrues.