You may have heard the term “statute of limitations,” but you may not understand what it means. It is important for everyone, not just lawyers, to have a basic understanding of statutes of limitations, because they can have a profound effect on your rights.
You may have heard about statutes of limitations in the context of criminal law. In criminal law, most, but not all, crimes must be prosecuted within a certain time or they cannot be prosecuted. For example, misdemeanors in Texas must generally be prosecuted within two years, and felony theft must be prosecuted within five years. Murder has no statute of limitations.
Civil suits are also subject to statutes of limitations, contained mostly in Chapter 16 of the Texas Civil Practice & Remedies Code. Personal injury lawsuits must generally be filed within two years after the “cause of action accrues,” or the defendant will be entitled to have the case dismissed. Other civil claims have longer or shorter statutes of limitations: fraud and breach of contract have a four-year statute of limitations, while libel or malicious prosecution have only a one year statute of limitations.
When a “cause of action accrues” it can be a tricky concept. It has been defined variously as the time when the plaintiff suffers a “legal injury,” or the time when all the facts allowing the plaintiff to file suit come into being. The accrual of the cause of action can be “tolled,” or delayed, by statute under a doctrine called the “discovery rule” or equitably through a doctrine called “fraudulent concealment.” The running of a statute of limitations is also delayed while the plaintiff is a minor or mentally incapacitated, or while the defendant has a pending bankruptcy case.
The key is that if you have a claim against someone, you should consult an attorney about it as soon as possible. Don’t try and figure out how the statute of limitations works yourself, and don’t tell yourself you have plenty of time because the statute may not run for 4 years. Delaying in bringing your claim could mean you lose the ability to ever bring it, no matter how badly you were hurt and no matter how egregious the defendant’s conduct.
If you or someone you know has a potential personal injury or other civil claim, contact the Houston Lawyer Referral Service at 713-237-9429.