Has The Statute Of Limitations Expired On My Claim?  Consider The Discovery Rule

Andrew M. McKenzie, Edmonds Lawyer

Most people have heard of something called a statute of limitations.  Generally speaking, a statute of limitations is a law which specifies a period of time within which a claim may be brought, before it becomes time barred.  There is no one statute of limitations for all possible claims.  Rather, each specific claim is governed by the statute of limitations applicable to that claim.  Claims rooted in state law will be governed by that state’s applicable statute of limitations. 

Many a would-be-plaintiff has realized only when it was too late that they should have filed their claim earlier, and that they no longer have a meaningful remedy.  But it is also true that many people prematurely conclude that a claim is time-barred when it is not.  When evaluating the timeliness of a potential claim, plaintiffs and defendants should consider what is referred to as the “discovery rule.” 

The starting point for analyzing a statute of limitations is to determine when the claim “accrues”.  The clock on a statute of limitations normally starts ticking when the plaintiff has a right to seek relief in court.  This means that the plaintiff is able to establish all of the elements of its cause of action.  For example, in a breach of contract case, the statute of limitations would not start running prior to the defendant’s breach; mere suspicion that the defendant could breach in the future would not trigger the statute.  In a negligence case, a defendant’s negligence alone would not be enough to start the clock ticking if the plaintiff has not yet suffered harm.  But once all of the elements exist to establish the cause of action, the default rule is that the cause of action has accrued and the statute of limitations begins running.  Often, however, the plaintiff does not know enough information to realize that they have a cause of action, and this common circumstance is where the discovery rule comes into play. 

Under the discovery rule, for purposes of the statute of limitations, the cause of action is deemed not to accrue until the plaintiff “knows, or in the exercise of reasonable care should know, the facts that give rise to the cause of action.”  This principle applies to the facts, but not the legal significance of those facts.  In other words, the discovery rule will not prevent the statute of limitations from running just because the plaintiff is unsophisticated and/or did not receive competent legal advice to realize that they had a viable claim.  Once the plaintiff knows the facts which establish each element for a cause of action, the statute of limitations begins running, and the law presumes that the plaintiff has the responsibility and ability to pursue the claim and seek counsel if needed.

Some laws may appear like a statute of limitations when in fact they are something else.  For example, a statute of repose is not extendable via the discovery rule, and the period of limitations runs irrespective of a plaintiff’s state of knowledge.  It is important to know the difference and consult a lawyer when in doubt.

Statutes of limitations are normally affirmative defenses.  That means that it is the responsibility of the defendant to raise them once sued, and not the responsibility of the court.  Failure to raise a statute of limitations as a defense in a lawsuit can result in a claim being pursued even though it would ordinarily be time-barred.

Whether you are a plaintiff or defendant, understanding statutes of limitation and the discovery rule can be critical to your case.  The lawyers at Beresford Booth have extensive experience with civil litigation and would be happy to assist you in evaluating your claims or defenses.

To learn more about civil litigation, please contact Beresford Booth at info@beresfordlaw.com or by phone at (425) 776-4100.

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