People often ask, “What is the statute of limitations for my legal issue or claim?” Unfortunately, this is a very difficult question to answer.
State law and federal law include hundreds, if not thousands, of provisions covering a multitude of statutes of limitations. This means that one claim might have multiple relevant statutes of limitations, with different periods of time. What makes this even more confusing for people is the fact that it is not always clear which statutes apply to a particular situation. It is common for attorneys to argue about which statute of limitations applies in a given case.
For example, the attorney representing someone bringing a lawsuit will often argue for a longer statute of limitations. The attorney representing the other party, defending against the lawsuit, will argue that a shorter statute of limitations applies, which then would result in barring the lawsuit or claim before the court.
A single lawsuit often has various statutes of limitations. For example, one claim might be limited to three years, another claim might be six years, and another claim might be an entirely different time period. Another complexity is when the clock starts running. In general, the clock starts running when the harm of the illegal activity is known, or should be known, by the one harmed. The difficulty of this can be best understood by an example. If an industrial company dumps toxic waste into the ground, which takes years to seep into the drinking water, which takes years to result in cancer in the town, when should the clock start running? Does the clock start when the toxic waste was dumped into the ground? Does the clock start when the toxic chemicals enter the drinking water? Does the clock start when the cancer first occurs in the body? Does the clock start when the cancer is diagnosed? Does the clock start when the last person is diagnosed or the first person? Again, the general rule is the clock starts running for a statute of limitations when the victim knew or should have known of the harm they suffered as a result of the illegal act.
The State of Minnesota provides a long list of statues of limitations. You can search through it here to appreciate the complexity and length of the statutes of limitations applicable to claims in Minnesota. Likewise, statutes of limitations are scattered throughout federal statutes.
As a result of this complexity, attorneys are hesitant to issue a legal opinion definitively stating a statute of limitations applicable to a particular claim or issue. Rendering such a legal opinion involves significant risk of malpractice if a court later determines the attorney was inaccurate, resulting in harm to the attorney’s client. For this reason, attorneys typically charge a significant legal fee to issue a legal opinion on the statutes of limitations relevant to a particular set of facts or circumstances.