Justice Delayed, Justice Denied – Statute of Limitations.
A client walks through the door and says he lent someone $10,000 but never got paid. It’s the usual story: a friend orally promised to pay back a loan, but the promise kept getting delayed until it was obvious that the client will never get paid. The client comes to you and says he wants to sue. The problem, of course, is that the broken promise (first time the friend failed to pay) occurred more than three years ago and the client lost his right to sue. Or to take another example, a person is injured due to someone’s negligence, but the injured party waits and waits until he sues the responsible party, only to find out that the law says it is too late.
When someone wrongs you, you have a right to ask the court to redress your wrong. However, you must act upon your right within a specified time period or the law says you lose that right. This is what is called a “Statute of Limitations” in the legal world. One of the hardest thing for me is to tell a client that you just lost your chance to sue because you were too nice and waited.
There are different time limits for different injuries; and different time limits depending on which state law applies. For example, the statute of limitation for a breach of a written contract (lease agreement, business contract, etc.) is 5 years in Virginia but 3 years in Maryland and District of Columbia. The statute of limitation for personal injury cases (assault/battery, slip and fall, auto accidents, etc.) is 2 years in Virginia, but 3 years in Maryland and 1 or 3 years in D.C. depending on the nature of the case. Some injuries must be brought within 1 year, such as intentional tort (e.g., malicious wounding) or defamation.
That’s a lot of legalese and I realize that the numbers may be hard to keep track. However, I believe a good rule of thumb is this: when you are wronged or injured, it really shouldn’t take you more than one year to decide whether or not you want to sue the responsible party. Even if you are negotiating with the other party to reach a settlement, if the settlement is not reached within a year it will likely not reach a settlement anytime soon.
When I say wronged or injured, I am talking about the moment the other party first breaks the promise to pay or do something, the first day of the accident, or the first event that gives you cause to sue someone.
I think everyone should attempt to settle a case before hiring a lawyer and suing someone in court. However, remember that the law aids the vigilant and if you don’t exercise your right to sue within a given time, you may have lost that right forever.