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Leonardo Angiulo: Statutes of Limitations May Bring Your Past into the New Year

Monday, December 31, 2012

 

Ah, New Year's Eve. Time to shake off the old year and leave it behind. A fresh start. A new you. But just because you are ready to move on doesn't mean that everything from this year is part of your past. The way our legal system works, your past could suddenly become your future.

When an incident occurs it may take some time before the court case catches up with you. The limit on how long a plaintiff can wait to file a lawsuit is called the applicable statute of limitation. Each particular type of case comes with its own time limits.

Broadly speaking there are two basic categories: criminal and civil. Within each of these groups are various statutes of limitation that apply. For example, within the civil category are torts and contract actions. Torts have a three-year limit while contract cases have a six-year limit. Any lawsuit must be filed prior to the appropriate date or your case will be dismissed.

If you are walking across a street one day and get hit by a bus, chances are there will be some serious injuries as a result. In fact, they could be debilitating. If you do not take legal action prior to the third anniversary of your accident you may be barred from recovering any monies in compensation. This is because your cause of action would be in the nature of a personal injury case. Personal injury cases are considered torts and subject to the three-year statute I described.

Similarly, no matter how bad a business dispute gets, it's not over until six years from the time when the breach of contract occurs. Let's say I deliver a couple of trailer loads of materials to your hypothetical commercial roofing company. Instead of the metal roofing supplies you wanted, I deliver pallets of asphalt shingles. Now, you are completely out of luck and I refuse to help fix the problem. So long as you take legal action within that six-year time frame applicable to contract cases, you will not have a statute of limitations problem. If you wait, however, you will no longer be able to pursue the matter in court.

As I mentioned earlier, most criminal cases have statutes of limitation as well. While this may seem practically unreasonable think about it: not everyone gets arrested immediately after a crime gets committed. What if there is an incident at a bar where person A and person B get into a fight. No police witness the scuffle but person B ends up at the hospital and a report gets filed. What may happen next is that the police may file a complaint with the local clerk magistrate and a show cause hearing could be scheduled. Given how busy the courts are these days it may be some time before that hearing gets held.

Person A may go months without being arrested or even getting notice that there are charges headed his way. According to Massachusetts General Laws c. 277, sec. 33, the crime of assault and battery is subject to a six-year statute of limitation. What this means is that just because you didn't get arrested immediately, doesn't mean you can't get charged later on.

With any luck, your 2013 will be filled with new faces and new experiences. If, however, there is an unresolved issue from some previous year you may be reliving your past in a courtroom. 

 

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