A statute of limitations is a law that outlines how long a person has to file a lawsuit. The law sets the maximum amount of time that a party may initiate legal proceedings from the date of an alleged offense, civil or criminal. In civil law systems, this is known as a prescriptive period.
Supporters of statutes of limitations believe they are necessary as important evidence may be time-sensitive, and witnesses' memories may become less clear as time goes on. However, statutes of limitations are controversial when legal action cannot be brought against an offender because the maximum length of time has passed. For example, if a state's medical malpractice state of limitations is two years, a person cannot sue for medical malpractice two years and one day after the incident.
For criminal cases, the statute of limitations dictates how long a prosecutor has to charge someone with a crime. For example, if a person commits a crime but many years have passed, the accused person may not have to go to trial or face criminal punishment depending on the state and the crime. Severe crimes, such as murder, typically have no maximum period. Under international law, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide have no statute of limitations.
Additionally, states have statutes of limitations on debt, which is how long a creditor has to sue an individual for payment on a debt.
In this article, we'll look at the statute of limitations for civil cases. This varies not just by state but also by the type of lawsuit being filed.
The table below contains common statutes of limitations for all 50 states and D.C. from Nolo. This information should be used as a rough guide, and one should their state's actual statute (provided in the table) for their specific claim or speak to an attorney.