LEGAL CORNER: Time can be your friend, or adversary, in legal matters

LEGAL CORNER: Time can be your friend, or adversary, in legal matters

At some point, everyone has heard the term “statute of limitation,” although many may not be sure exactly what it means. Is it a law? What does it limit? How does it affect me and a legal situation I may have? Well, in one way or another, all of us may be touched at some point by a statute of limitation relative to a legal dilemma we may find ourselves a part of.

Technically, a statute of limitation is a law of the federal government or a state that sets out the maximum time periods during which certain legal actions can be brought or individual rights enforced against another person. Once this time period in the specific statute has run out, no court action can be brought on that matter, regardless of whether or not the claim was valid. In other words, if you believe you have a valid claim or cause of action against someone else, the law limits the time frame in which you may act. If, for whatever reason, you fail to assert your rights during this time, you will be out of luck and you will have no formal court remedy for your problem.

Although these time frames may seem harsh to an aggrieved party, there is actually a good reason to impose these limits. Courts have held that allowing only a certain amount of time for actions to be commenced is appropriate for the peace of mind of all citizens. With these statutes of limitation, you do not have to spend the rest of your life worrying whether a lawsuit will be brought against you and defending yourself against it 20 or 30 years later.

Could you imagine if a disagreement arises between you and another person concerning a car accident in 2018 that may or may not have been your fault, and the person wants to sue you for his injuries in   2030?

Who could stand having a lawsuit hanging over his or her head for decades? And who could remember what happened way back then?

The witnesses may have died or can’t be found. In a case like this, the law would force the plaintiff to bring his action for injuries within a reasonable time after the accident for a more judicious and fair resolution. Statutes of limitation provide an affirmative defense against legal actions brought too long after the incident and provide closure to the situation once and for all.

Some of the more relevant statutes of limitation to keep in mind from both a plaintiff’s and defendant’s point of view are the following: 

■You have three years to bring a legal action for personal injuries (two years in Connecticut), medical malpractice and wrongful death. ■You have four years to sue for breach of contract for the sale of goods. ■If you should have a house fire, the law allows you only one year to bring a claim under your insurance policy. ■If you have defamed or slandered someone’s character, hope they let one year pass by without suing you and they will lose their cause of action. ■And finally, if your car is damaged by a pothole in a state road, you have only seven days in which to bring your claim for repair against the state ($300 limit).

So keep in mind that if you find yourself in the legal system, there are always time limits imposed upon you. At times, they may be beneficial to you as a defense that may allow the dismissal of a time-barred lawsuit, or they may be detrimental to your case if you wait too long to enforce your rights. Closely observing time periods can be the first key to your successful court action or your successful defense.

Marc Page is an attorney with a general law practice in downtown Westerly. He is licensed in both Rhode Island and Connecticut and can be reached at 401-596-1726.


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