Legalese — Statutes of Limitation

photo courtesy of MorgueFile
photo courtesy of MorgueFile

Most everyone has heard of a “Statute of Limitation,” which is a limit on the amount of time you have to bring a certain matter to court, but not everyone knows specifically what it is. Criminal statutes of limitations are different; today, I will talk about civil statutes of limitation. ‘Civil’ in legalese does not mean that everyone behaves politely and acts like adults – civil means legal actions that are not crimes – a lawsuit brought by one person against another, not the state against a person in which that person’s liberty is at stake.

Statutes of limitation exist because there is a general theory in the legal realm that if you don’t insist on your rights within a certain period of time you no longer get to enforce those rights. Sort of a “you snooze you lose” theory of law.

Actions on regular contracts that are on paper have to be brought within six years. This does not apply to something you have purchased or ‘negotiable instruments’ which are things like checks and securities, which have their own statutes. This would include your agreement to pay medical bills, which you may or may not know you signed when you filled out all the paperwork when you got to the doctor’s office. (Note: you should read everything you sign. You might be surprised what it says.) If the contract is not in writing or if it is ‘implied,’ then the action has to be brought within four years.

Fiduciaries are people like executors or a will, trustees of a trust, and administrators of estates. In other words, they are people in charge of other people’s money. If you want to bring an action against a fiduciary, you have to do it within ten years of when the ‘right of action accrues.’

A lawsuit for damage to “personalty,” which is legalese for “stuff you own” has to be brought within four years. The same for a lawsuit to get your stuff back from someone who has either taken it from you, or kept it beyond your permission to keep it.

Personal injuries, which is what most car accident law suits are about, have to be brought within two years of the incident. Libel and slander suits, which are lumped in the code along with personal injuries, have to be brought within a year. Loss of consortium has to be brought within four years. Loss of consortium is a kind of odd concept if you think about it too hard. Loss of consortium means the loss of your ability to use your spouse for what a spouse ought to be used for. This includes not only, ahem, marital intimacy, but also the household chores which the injured spouse was normally responsible for and which they now cannot do because of the injury.

Medical malpractice is its own category. Generally speaking, the action has to be brought within two years of when the malpractice occurred. This can be tricky, because sometimes you don’t know that it happened for some time. There is a whole separate code section for foreign objects left in the body. This can be something like a sponge or gauze or anything else that wasn’t supposed to be left behind. That action has to be brought within one year of when you find the object, but no greater than five years after the object was left. “For the purposes of this Code section, [O.C.G.A. 9-3-72,] the term “foreign object” shall not include a chemical compound, fixation device, or prosthetic aid or device.” This is to make sure that no one tries to sue because the pacemaker (for example) which was the whole point of the surgery was left in someone’s chest. Like all laws, there is likely a story behind it, and you have to wonder who sued for what that provoked this sentence to be added to the statute.

Statutes of limitation can be confusing because they are so different, they change from time to time, and some can be tolled – meaning, some can be delayed because of the fact that the injured person is a minor or the injury wasn’t discovered in some cases – and so you should not under any circumstances read this article and assume you know how much time you have. There are rules and cross referenced rules and exceptions, and just to be on the safe side I look them up every single time because I cannot keep them straight in my head.

Just remember what I said in the beginning – you snooze, you lose. As soon as you know you have a problem, deal with it. There is little benefit in waiting to get advice.

This article was written by a lawyer, but should not be considered legal advice in any way, shape, or form. It is written for general (and generally vague) informational purposes only. In order to properly evaluate your case, a lawyer must examine all the facts and circumstances that are particular and personal to your situation. I have not done that here.

About Lori Duff 74 Articles
Lori is the author of the bestselling collection of humor essays, "Mismatched Shoes and Upside Down Pizza" currently available exclusively on Amazon. In order to finance her writing habit, she is a practicing lawyer with Jones & Duff, LLC. She is married to Mike Duff, who is a retired DeKalb County Public Safety Officer, and has two amazing children who make cameo embarrassing appearances in her blog posts and who attend Walton County Public Schools. Her legal column, "Legalese", is meant to de-mystify and humanize the Court system. When asked about her writing, Lori says, "Life is too short not to laugh at every available opportunity. My goal is to make myself laugh -- and hopefully you will laugh along with me."
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