Many are familiar with the seven-year statute of limitations for crimes, or that murder has no statute of limitations. Insurance claims have specific statutes of limitation as well.
Statute of Limitations
A statute of limitations is the amount of time in which a court case--not just a report or claim--must be initiated. After the statute of limitations expires, you have no legal right to file suit, regardless of the merits of the case.
While it may seem that a statute of limitations protects the other party, the purpose is actually to provide for reasonable and fair judicial process so that claims cannot drag on for years--tying up courts and keeping people from getting on with their lives--and to ensure that the facts are still fresh in the memories of witnesses and other participants.
State law dictates the statute of limitations, which varies considerably. In general, most states allow a two- or three-year time frame. There are exceptions; the statute of limitations can be as short as one year (Louisiana, Kentucky, Tennessee and Arizona, only for dog bites) or as long as six years (Maine, Minnesota and North Dakota, except for two years in wrongful-death suits.)
The clock starts ticking as soon as the claim "accrues," meaning, as soon as it is realised, or should be realised, that an injurious incident occurred. Most medical claims begin accruing at the time of the treatment causing injury. However, if the claim is failure to diagnose or treat, claims can be valid many years later.
In certain exceptions, the case may be "tolled," or delayed without counting against the statute of limitations. If a minor under 18 is involved, for instance, or if a party is imprisoned or committed to an insane asylum, the clock starts ticking as soon as they are of age or released from confinement.
Claims Against the State
Additionally, when the claim involves a state or local government, you have at most a year to initiate action, and usually less. For instance, Arizona allows six months, and the city of Dallas only 90 days. Count on no more than 60 days and take action quickly. Additionally, the federal government allows two years for federal torts.
Caution: This article cannot substitute for legal advice; consult an attorney to further protect your rights.