Statutes of limitations (SOL) are laws passed by legislatures to set the maximum time after an event within which legal proceedings may be initiated. In other words, a statute of limitations is the period of time after something happens (car accident, work accident) giving rise to legal liability, for the injured party to hold the responsible party liable, either through settlement or the filing of a lawsuit. Once the period of time specified by the SOL has passed, the injured party is forever barred from filing a lawsuit for that specific cause of action.
The actual cause of action dictates the length of the SOL, as a work accident will likely have a different length of time for the SOL than a car accident. Each state will have its own set of SOLs for the various causes of action, and not every cause of action will be strictly enumerated by each state. For example, a civil action for sexual assault does not have a specific SOL in Nebraska. The intention of a SOL is to facilitate resolution of potential lawsuits within a reasonable length of time to help protect potential defendants. There are three general reasons for this:
- a plaintiff with a valid cause of action should pursue it with reasonable diligence;
- as time passes, a defendant will be more likely to lose evidence to disprove a claim; and
- it is considered cruel to force someone to defendant a long-dormant claim. The merits (or lack thereof) of those reasons can certainly be debated all day long.
The SOLs that our office deals with the most are for workers' compensation and personal injury. In Nebraska, the SOL for a work accident is two years from the date of the accident, or two years from the last payment of a benefit by the workers' compensation insurance carrier. A claim for a personal injury in Nebraska must be settled or have a lawsuit filed within four years of the date of the accident. The important thing to remember is that when you have a potential claim or lawsuit, you need to consult with an attorney sooner rather than later, to make sure the clock on the SOL doesn't strike zero, forever barring your claim.