Updated April 15, 2016
A statute of limitations sets the period of time someone has to take some kind of legal action. Statutes of limitation, for example, set deadlines for suing. When a plaintiff misses the cutoff, the defendant can use the statute of limitations as a defense against the suit. If the defendant establishes that the statute of limitations applies and has indeed “run,” the court will normally dismiss the case.
(This article is about statutes of limitations in Pennsylvania civil cases. For information about criminal cases, see our article on criminal statutes of limitations in Pennsylvania.)
Time Limits on Claims
For statute-of-limitations purposes, the clock normally starts to tick when the claim arises. Courts sometimes refer to this starting point as the “accrual” of the “cause of action”; it’s the moment at which the plaintiff has a basis to sue. (Certain events and circumstances can delay or “toll” statutes of limitations, essentially lengthening the time period for bringing a claim.)
Assume one person wants to sue another for assault and battery. Assume also that the statute of limitations for assault and battery is two years. In a typical case, the plaintiff would have two years from the date of being hit by the defendant to file suit.
Statutes of limitations can vary from state to state, and from state court to federal court. They also differ depending on the kind of action involved.
Statutes of Limitations in Pennsylvania
Below you’ll find statutes of limitations for several claims in Pennsylvania. You can see the statutes to learn more and to look for changes to them. (Be aware that court rulings determine the way statutes are interpreted; they can even make statutes or parts of them unenforceable.)
Keep in mind that the following is a partial list with broad overviews; you should look at the actual law for nuances and exceptions. For example, whether because the statute says so or a court has decided as much, a limitations period can start to run from the point that the plaintiff knew or should have known of an injury rather than the date of the injury itself. A statute might even provide, for instance, that you have two years to bring an action from the date you knew or should have known that you suffered some kind of harm, but in no event do you have more than six years from the date of the event in question. Examining the law would provide you with that level of detail.
Also, even if one of the causes of action below seems to apply, you might have grounds for a different or an additional claim with its own statute of limitations. Not only that, but a more specific statute of limitations than what’s below could control your case—perhaps a statute of limitations for mortgage foreclosure rather than one for contracts.
Make sure to consult a lawyer for a better understanding of all time limits that apply to your situation and any possibilities for overcoming them. Rules might differ when the action is against the government. Or you might have to file a particular kind of claim before being able to sue. In short, the law in this area is complicated.