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In the case of an injury that continues to affect the Plaintiff,

is there some time limit for filing legal documents with a court?

2 Answers 2

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Overview

The big picture to keep in mind is that in the United States the applicable deadline for filing a lawsuit is very specific to the legal theory upon which relief is sought from a court, and that there are numerous special rules (which can vary from claim to claim and based upon the individual facts of the case) that can modify these general rules. Exceptions to the general rules are common enough that it is not safe to rely upon them.

There is a lot of case law on these issues because dismissals of cases because a statute of limitations has run are usually all or nothing issues in a lawsuit, don't depend on too much evidence, and are often relatively straightforward and inexpensive to appeal relative to other kinds of legal issues.

Also, lawyers whose cases are dismissed for failing to meet a statute of limitations often have a strong incentive to encourage their clients to appeal, because they may face malpractice liability if the dismissal of their client's claims is upheld.

While the question is specifically directed at how statutes of limitations apply to continuing violations, it isn't possible to really clearly answer that question outside of the larger context of how statutes of limitations in the United States work in general, and without considering other legal doctrines that can have similar effects to rules based upon continuing violations under different legal theories.

Also, keep in mind that when you hire a lawyer to bring a lawsuit, the lawyer needs lead time to prepare the documents starting the lawsuit.

The best practice is to contact a lawyer as soon as possible because this may allow claims with shorter statutes of limitations that you had not even considered to be brought. It is usually very imposing on the lawyer to bring a new lawsuit to them less than a month before the deadline for bringing suit. Sometimes it is possible to get the job done a week or even a few days before the deadline, but this invites mistakes that could impair later phases of the lawsuit, limits the time available for factual investigation and legal research before bringing the lawsuit, drives up the cost of preparing the documents because work that would otherwise be done by staff or junior lawyers may have to be done by senior lawyers, and exposes you to the risk that you won't be able to find a lawyer who is actually willing to take on your case on acceptable financial terms right away.

Statutes of Limitations In Ohio

In Ohio, for non-criminal cases, some of the most common statutes of limitations are as follows (citations to the relevant statutes are found in the linked material):

21 years to recover real estate; 8 years to sue on written contracts; six years to sue on oral contracts; two years for actions for personal injuries or property damage; and one year for libel, slander, malicious prosecution, false imprisonment, and professional malpractice. Most other types of lawsuits are subject to a four-year limitation.

See also here (providing more specific examples including four year statutes of limitations for claims for trespass and fraud).

Different and usually must shorter statutes of limitations apply to reopening court judgments in cases due to irregularities in the proceedings, and to appeal court judgments.

If a statute of limitations runs without a lawsuit being filed, the right to seek legal redress for the wrong committed expires. With very narrow exceptions, usually invited or assented to by the party sued in some way, once a statute of limitations has expired the claim that is barred can never be revived.

A nice medium length summary of the various doctrines applicable to statutes of limitations (mostly discussed below) in the state of Minnesota, which is fairly typical of U.S. states) can be found here.

Statutes Of Limitations For Federal Law Claims

These limitations apply to claims under state law. Claims under federal law sometimes have their own statutes of limitations (e.g. federal copyright and patent infringement lawsuits), and sometimes are governed by the analogous statute of limitations under state law.

For example, the statute of limitations for lawsuits under the federal Lanham Act is based upon the most analogous state law statute of limitations. In those circumstances it is usually necessary to look a case law in the state and federal courts in that state to determine the correct statute of limitations for that kind of claim.

When Does A Claim Accrue?

The date that one starts to calculate from for a statute of limitations is sometimes the date when the wrong is done (also known as a statute of repose), and sometimes when it is known or should have been known by the person bringing the lawsuit. The date when you start counting to determine the statute of limitations deadline is the called the date that 'the claim accrues" or that the "claim arises."

Usually a claim accrues when the person bringing the lawsuit knew that a particular person breached a legal duty to them and that this breach of a legal duty to them caused them injuries, even if the amount of the injuries caused is uncertain. But for some kinds of lawsuits, knowledge that a person breached a legal duty to them alone is enough even if it wasn't clear at the time that the person to whom the duty was owed would suffer legal injuries.

What Must One Do Before The Statute Of Limitations Runs?

In most U.S. states (including Ohio pursuant to Ohio Rule of Civl Procedure 3) and in the federal system pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 3, a statute of limitations is met by filing a lawsuit with a court by the deadline, so long as a defendant has a summons and complaint delivered to the defendant within the time allowed by court rules after the lawsuit is commenced.

But, in other U.S. states, such as Minnesota, the statute of limitations applicable to a defendant can only be met by delivering the summons and complaint in a lawsuit to a defendant, whether or not the lawsuit has been filed with the clerk of the relevant court. When a summons and complaint has been delivered to a defendant but the case has not yet been filed with the clerk of the court in which the lawsuit states that it is brought, that court has what is called "hip-pocket" jurisdiction over the lawsuit.

Tolling and Estoppel

Certain circumstances (such as a victim who is a minor, or the death of the victim before the statute of limitations has expired) can toll the statute of limitations (i.e. stop it from running) while that situation continues or for a certain maximum length of time.

Some statutes of limitations can be lengthened with an agreement of the parties in what is called a "tolling agreement".

Another concept similar to tolling is that someone who is sued may be prohibited from asserting a statute of limitations defense under a doctrine called "estoppel" if the failure of the person to bring the lawsuit within the statute of limitations is caused by the misconduct of the person seeking to assert the statute of limitations defense.

Both tolling and estoppel are exceptions to the general rule that are frequently interpreted strictly against people bringing a lawsuit, however. One should never assume that these doctrines apply and rely upon them making a lawsuit timely, unless one has no other choice but to do so.

Continuing Violations

Sometimes in the case of a "continuing violation" the statute runs from the last time that the continuing violation was committed.

But, it is not safe to assume based upon logic alone whether a violation is a continuing violation or not.

Sometimes the statute of limitations runs from the initial violation, even if it continues.

Sometimes a lawsuit can seek remedies from the first time the violation occurred until the present based upon a continuing violation if a lawsuit is commenced within the statute of limitations after the violation ceases.

Sometimes a lawsuit can be brought based upon a continuing violation until the requisite number of years after the violation ceases, but the remedy is limited to harms caused by conduct that was within the statute of limitations or to injuries that occurred within the statute of limitations.

There is really no way to know which of these rules applies to a particular kind of claim without examining the case law for each particular type of claim.

A related concept is that in lawsuits to collect a debt for money owed, the statute of limitations is typically reset every time a payment is made or there is a written affirmation from the debtor that a debt is owed.

Other Exceptions To The General Rules

Previously Time Barred Claims

Sometimes a statute of limitations is amended to make it longer. When this happens, claims that were already barred by the statute of limitations are generally not reinstated. But claims that are not already barred by the statute of limitations on the effective date of the new law usually, but not always, benefit from the new statute of limitations.

Borrowed Statutes Of Limitations

Sometimes someone can bring a lawsuit in a court where, for example, the defendant resides, even though the wrong occurred in another jurisdiction that has different statutes of limitations. The way that this situation is handled varies. The most common rule is for the state where the lawsuit is filed to apply its own statute of limitations unless the lawsuit would have been barred by the statute of limitations in the place where the wrong occurred. But not all states follow this rule in all cases.

Special Rules For Counterclaims

Some states allow counterclaims that would otherwise be barred by a statute of limitations to be brought when they relate to what someone is being sued over, even when otherwise, the statute of limitations for the counterclaims would have expired.

For example, suppose that someone sues Joe for breaching a promissory note in Colorado (which has a counterclaim exception), five years after the contract was allegedly breached (in a state where the statute of limitations is six year); Joe may be able to counterclaim against the person suing him for fraud in the same transaction in which the promissory note was created even though the three year statute of limitations for bringing a fraud claim in Colorado would have otherwise expired.

Dismissals Without Prejudice For Suing In The Wrong Court

Some states allow you to bring a lawsuit that is otherwise barred by the statute of limitations, if a lawsuit is filed within the statute of limitations in a court that then dismisses the claim for a reason unrelated to the merits of that claim (usually lack of subject-matter jurisdiction), and the person bringing the lawsuit promptly refiles it in the proper court.

The Relation Back Doctrine

Sometimes after a lawsuit is filed against a defendant the complaint in the lawsuit is amended to assert new claims against the existing defendants, or to assert claims against a new defendant, after the statute of limitations for filing the new claims against the existing defendants, or the existing or new claims against a new defendant has expired, even though the original lawsuit was filed within the statute of limitations applicable to those claims.

In those cases, the claims in the amended complaint will be treated for statute of limitations purposes as filed when the lawsuit was originally filed, if the "relation back" doctrine is satisfied. This is governed by Ohio Rule of Civil Procedure 15 and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15 respectively in state and federal court.

In cases where new claims are asserted against an existing defendant, the relation back doctrine applies roughly speaking when the new claim arises from the same transactions and events that the lawsuit was originally based upon, even if it attaches significant to different facts or different legal theories.

In cases where a new party is sued, the claims roughly speaking relate back when the new party had notice of the lawsuit within the statute of limitations and the new party knew or should have know that the new party was not sued originally only due to a mistake regarding who the proper person to sue in the case was (e.g. because related corporate entities had similar names and the wrong corporation in the group of affiliated companies was sued).

Failure To Assert The Defense

Statutes of limitations, and most other grounds for dismissing claims as untimely, are affirmative defenses, not something that must be established on the face of the complaint initiating a lawsuit. So, if the defendant fails to raise a statute of limitations defense in a case, even if it is actually available under the true facts of the situation, then the lawsuit will not be dismissed for failure to sue within the statute of limitations.

Other Rules That Can Bar A Claim Filed Too Late

Contractual modification of the statute of limitations

Sometimes a statute of limitations can be shortened by a contractual agreement of the parties, most often for breaches of the contract shorting the deadline for bringing claims arising from its breach. If this shortening of the statute of limitations isn't unreasonable and is obtained with fair disclosure, and no public policy is violated by the modification, it will often be upheld by a court.

For example, a contract might require a party to raise a dispute concerning an item contained in a statement or invoice presented to the party asked to pay it within a certain reasonable time period, even if the relationship between the parties is ongoing and the statute of limitations would otherwise run from the last date upon which the parties reached a final settlement between them of their dealing with each other.

Probate and Bankruptcy Cases

There is also generally speaking a strict time limitation in addition to a statute of limitations on enforcing claims against people who have died (sometimes called a "non-claims statute") and against people who have filed for bankruptcy. Sometimes, however, a deadline involving a non-claims statute that is triggered by giving notice to the person to be barred by it can be waived in cases where the person with the claim had no actual notice of the deadline.

Lawsuits Against The Government

There are also often special additional time limits that apply to lawsuits against government entities and governmental employees acting in their official capacities, especially for torts as opposed to breaches of contract. These are often much shorter than the usual statute of limitations.

Laches

Sometimes claims have no statute of limitations at all, but those are the exception and are quite rare. But even when there isn't a fixed deadline for filing a lawsuit, a legal doctrine called laches bars lawsuits when they are filed an unreasonably long time after they arise in a manner that is prejudicial to the person sued.

Sometimes the doctrine of laches can even bar a claim in a lawsuit, or certain kinds of relief in connection with a claim in a lawsuit, even if the claim is brought within the applicable statute of limitations. In these situations, this doctrine is similar to the doctrine of estoppel preventing someone from asserting a statute of limitations.

For example, if someone knows that the records necessary to defend against a lawsuit are about to be destroyed even though the statute of limitations will not run for another few years, the lawsuit could be dismissed under the doctrine of laches if the person bringing the lawsuit knew that and deliberately waited until after the documents were destroyed to bring the lawsuit.

Mootness

A claim can also be barred because it has become "moot" which is to say that due to the circumstances that have occurred since a legal wrong was committed, it is no longer possible for a court to provide relief the relief that the person bringing the lawsuit is seeking.

For example, in a lawsuit seeking possession of an apartment and no other relief, the lawsuit becomes moot if the person in the apartment leaves the apartment and surrenders possession to the person seeking it, or if the building burns down.

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In many cases there are such time limits. Such a limit is usually called a "statute of limitations" in English. Different jurisdictions have different limits. In addition, any given jurisdiction will have different limits for different types of suits or cases.

In many cases the limit starts running when the allegedly unlawful act first occurred. In other cases it starts when the victim became aware, or should have become aware, of the issue. In yet other cases the limit resets each time an offense or tort is committed. There are often different limits for criminal and civil proceedings, and often several different limits for different types of civil cases..

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