The Law Dictionary

Featuring Black’s Law Dictionary Free Online Legal Dictionary 2nd Ed.

Liability and the Effect of Civil and Criminal Statutes of Limitations

Liability under the law generally means being legally responsible. A person who commits a criminal act is legally responsible, or liable, for the conduct that violated the law. On the civil side, individuals are held liable for the consequences of their actions.

For example, liability might be imposed upon a motorist whose intoxication causes an accident and injuries to another driver. The negligent driver might be ordered to pay compensation to the victim. The intoxicated driver might also be arrested and charged with criminal liability for driving while intoxicated.

Liability can be affected by the statute of limitations. Statutes of limitations are laws enacted by a legislative body on the state or federal level that impose restrictions on how long prosecutors have to file criminal charges against someone suspected of committing a crime or on the amount of time a party has to file a civil lawsuit. Statutes of limitations are intended to prevent prosecutors in criminal cases and plaintiffs in civil ones from gaining an unfair advantage over defendants by purposely delaying commencement of court proceedings.


Putting a defendant at a distinct disadvantage

The public policy behind statutes of limitations is one of simple fairness. Some defendants in civil and criminal cases might not be aware of the civil claim or the criminal investigation until a court proceeding is begun, so obtaining legal representation or beginning an investigation to build a defense strategy can be compromised.

Delays in filing criminal and civil cases can result situations occurring that could prejudice the defendant, including witnesses moving away, memories fading, evidence being lost or evidence being destroyed.

If a lawsuit in a civil case is not filed within the time allowed by the statute of limitations, the defendant can ask a court to dismiss it. Dismissal would prevent the injured party from recovering damages. A criminal statute of limitations works in much the same way by allowing a defendant to ask for dismissal of the charges if the prosecution fails to file criminal charges in time.


Types of civil statutes of limitations

Statutes of limitations vary from state to state, and states can have time limitations that differ from one type of case to another. For instance, the statute of limitations in some states for filing a lawsuit based upon personal injuries caused by the negligence of another person might be two years from the date of the accident, but the statute of limitations in other states could be three or four years.

Some civil cases, such as breach of contract or collection of a debt, could be substantially longer than the time limits on personal injury cases. Breach of contract or debt collection cases could be as long as six years in some states.


Criminal statutes of limitations

As a general rule, serious criminal offenses, such as murder, kidnapping, arson and sex offenses in which the victim is a child, do not have a statute of limitations. Prosecutors are under no time constraint as to those criminal charges to which no statute of limitations has been enacted.

Other crimes, such as petty theft or minor misdemeanors might have statutes of limitations of one year or less while time limits for filing more serious offenses could be longer. All states have enacted laws suspending the statute of limitations in those situations in which a suspect flees and cannot be found. In those situations, the statute of limitations is tolled until the suspect is apprehended.


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