A Primer on Statutes of Limitations

March 16, 2015

If you’ve been involved with a lawsuit you’ve likely heard the term “statute of limitations.” Statutes are laws, passed by legislative bodies and signed by the executive. (On occasion, a statute comes about as a result of an overridden veto of a passed law.)

Statutes of limitations limit the time for filing lawsuits. (But for murder, there are limitations statutes for criminal laws, but we’re focused on civil claims.) They matter whenever the time for filing might pass, for a missed statute results in a dismissed case, almost always.

Two issues matter with respect to a limitations analysis:  which statute applies, and when the claim accrued. In Arizona limitations statutes are codified in Title 12 (Courts and Civil Proceedings), Chapter 5 (Limitations of Actions) aka A.R.S. § 12-501 et seq. Chapter 5 is divided into three articles, addressing general principles, actions involving real property and those dealing with personal causes of action.

Eyes glazing over? Things get a bit simpler, but these issues are complicated, and I’m writing about them to make lay people aware of the issues, not to suggest this is DIY work.

Actions involving real property relate to title, generally. The most common real property claims involve adverse possession. Basically, if someone has possession of your property without your consent for 10 years, it may belong to them. (There are some shorter time periods, but they apply in rare circumstances.)

I’ve handled many adverse passion cases. One stands out. My clients’ neighbor built some improvements on my clients’ property, claiming he and his predecessors had grown and maintained a lawn on the disputed property for about 15 years. We prevailed, and watched the bulldozer destroy the improvements. We won because, during the 15-year period, the federal government—from which property cannot be adversely possessed—owned the property briefly as a result of a seizure from a marijuana dealer.

Personal causes of action are far more common. The limitations periods run from one to six years, depending on the cause of action. The six-year statute applies to written contracts involving debts. Think promissory notes, written agreements to pay money, etc. Oral debt claims must be brought within three years. And the reason for the difference? Limitations statutes balance the rights of wronged parties against the need to have witnesses and documents available to defend against a claim. In theory, at least, an action on a writing should focus on a document, while a suit involving an oral debt requires witnesses with memories.

Suits for personal injuries must be brought within two years of accrual, and the same statute applies to claims against someone for wrongfully taking property (conversion). The three-year statute applies to the afore-mentioned oral debts, as well as fraud claims. The one-year statute governs a series of claims which include employment contract breaches, false imprisonment claims, and claims arising out of a statutory violation.

So when do claims accrue. Generally, the time for filing suit starts to run when you know you’ve been injured and have reason to know your injury was caused by a wrongful act. Lots of nuances here, as you might imagine, but that’s the essence, and determining the accrual can be easy or difficult.

So what should you do if you’ve been harmed, whether on account of a physical injury or because of something involving money? Get to an attorney, promptly. Letting a limitations period pass without taking action will almost certainly leave you with no remedy and, while I’m not advocating for lots of lawsuits, the decision to sue or not sue should be made in a timely way, so that you’re making an informed decision.



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