Frequently Asked Questions - What is a statute of limitations?
The statute of limitations is a law that restricts the timeframe in which a legal proceeding can be brought. Statute of limitations (SOL) are a nearly universal concept in all legal systems throughout the world. In the United States, we have different periods of limitations for federal cases and state cases. Additionally, the SOL will vary from state to state and from cause of action to cause of action. Normally the more serious the crime, the longer the SOL is. Some crimes, such as murder, do not have any SOL. We’ve all seen crime shows on TV where someone has “gotten away” with murder for years or even decades. However, because of the lack of any SOL on the crime, charges are often filed against older individuals who committed the murder when they were young. Most crimes and all civil cases are unlike murder in that there are definite limitations on when a case or charge can be filed.
The reasons that we have limitations on when actions may be brought are fairly easy to understand. First, it is assumed that someone with a valid case would and should bring the case to court with reasonable diligence. The failure to bring a case when it should be brought has certain foreseeable consequences. If somebody waits too long to bring a case, the ability to defend it may be impaired because evidence is lost or memories have faded. Also it is assumed that people have the right or expectation to move on with their lives after a certain amount of time has expired. Litigating old cases may actually result in more injustice than justice.
Florida’s SOL’s are not unlike SOL’s in many other states. In Florida the current limitations for criminal acts are found in Chapter 775 of the Florida Statutes. The most serious felonies, a capital or life felony can be brought to trial at any time. Other felonies have three to four year SOL depending on the severity. There are special felonies which carry longer SOLs. Crimes involving the use of bombs, abuse of the elderly, and certain types of fraud fall into this special category of having SOL’s longer than four years. Sex crimes against minors also have provisions for extending the SOL. Misdemeanors have either a one or two year limitation, again with the less serious misdemeanors having a shorter period of time for prosecution. Chapter 775 also states that the SOL begins to run the day after the crime is committed, and that the state has to file an indictment or information before the time runs. (The trial, conviction and appeal are not limited by the SOL.) The criminal SOL provisions in Florida also have extensions due to the defendant being absent from the state.
Chapter 95 of Florida Statutes contains the Florida laws that limit various types of civil actions or claims. Those are generally cases involving people or corporations. The SOL involving many contract cases, certain labor laws, and foreclosures is five years. Negligence cases have to be filed within four years. Many other cases involving property disputes and intentional torts also have four year SOLs. Some civil causes of action in Florida have very short SOL’s, two years or less. Cases with extremely short SOL’s in Florida include professional malpractice, wrongful death claims, wage and overtime cases, slander cases and certain types of contract cases. Certain intentional torts, like those involving death or sexual torts against minors do not have SOL’s.
Some areas of the law in Florida, such as workers’ compensation, have unique and complicated statutes of limitations. In Florida, you have two years from the date of accident to file a claim for benefits. This two year statute is tolled or extended after the initial two year period if you are receiving authorized medical treatment or receiving money benefits from the carrier. Every time you receive a benefit from the carrier, the SOL is extended for another year. For example, let’s say you were injured in an accident that occurred on May 5, 2017. If you timely report the accident to your Employer (within 30 days), then you have up until May 5, 2019 to pursue a claim or file a petition for benefits. That deadline is extended indefinitely if your treatment or receipt of money benefits from the insurance company is ongoing. If you see an authorized doctor for treatment on April 23, 2019, the SOL will be extended beyond the initial two year period until April 23, 2020.
This two year statute in workers’ compensation can be extended in other ways also. Sometimes an injured worker will not realize that he or she has suffered a work-related injury for some time after the work incident. Sometimes injuries don’t show up immediately and sometimes you don’t know that an injury is work related. In these circumstances, the court allows you to pursue a case as long as you do so within two years of when you knew, or should have known, that you suffered a work-related injury.
Other situations in Florida that extend when you can bring a claim have to repetitive trauma or exposure cases. In these cases, the more important date isn’t when the trauma or exposure first occurred. Rather the SOL doesn’t start to run until the last injurious exposure. Let’s say that you work in an extremely loud environment for 30 years. As a result of this work exposure, you experience hearing loss. This is a work related injury. And even if the hearing loss started 20 years ago, your time to begin a workers’ comp claim would not start to run out until the date that you were last exposed to the extremely loud work environment.
Workers’ compensation also has other ways that the two year statute is extended. If the Employer misleads the employee or fails to inform that employee of their rights, the SOL can be extended. Other situations that can extend or revive the statute of limitations include situations where there are permanent implants in somebody’s body as a result of an accident or where a carrier authorizes medical care after the statute of limitations has already run. In this latter case, the carrier is said to have “revived” the claim, essentially bringing a dead claim back to life.
As stated above, negligence cases have a four year statute of limitations. These are the cases that we often think about involving car accidents, slip and falls, etc. The four years is only the time that you have to file suit. A lawyer should definitely be involved in any personal injury case well before the time to file suit approaches. Some aspects of your personal injury case will have very short deadlines, even expiring weeks after an accident. Because the laws are complicated and lawsuits need preparation before they are even filed, TrialPro strongly encourages you to contact an attorney as soon as possible after an accident. Waiting too long can have dire consequences!