Buffington Law Firm’s civil litigation team often deals with otherwise good cases that are unfortunately barred in whole or in part by a Statute of Limitation. Sometimes this was entirely preventable, and this scenario is what this article is about. As many people are aware, almost all forms of civil lawsuits are subject to a Statute of Limitation — which generally means that once an offense or breach giving rise to a claim occurs, the prospective Plaintiff discovers, or reasonably should have discovered the claim (depending on the type of claim), there is a certain period of time during which the Plaintiff must bring the claim. If the Plaintiff delays past the Statute of Limitation period this usually means that the Defendant can use the applicable Statute of Limitation as an effective defense against the claim, however meritorious the claim may otherwise be. Put simply, A statute of limitations is a law that sets the maximum amount of time that parties involved in a dispute have to initiate a legal action from the date of an alleged offense. For example, for a breach of written contract, the statute of limitation is four years. [Cal. Code of Civil Procedure Section 337(a)]. For an oral contract the statute of limitation is half that: i.e. two years. [Cal. Code of Civil Procedure Section 339(1)]. For fraud the period is generally three years. [Cal. Code of Civil Procedure Section 338(d)]. There are many and varied Statutes of Limitations. Claims against Governmental agencies or entities often have special (and weird) Statutes of Limitations. Even experienced lawyers typically do not know them all and further, there may be many different Statutes of Limitations that apply to different legal theories that may relate to the same incident or claim. In such a situation it requires an experienced lawyer to determine which Statutes of Limitations may apply to the case.
Sometimes a problem arises when a prospective Plaintiff suffers some injury or breach that results in a legal claim. Not infrequently, that person gets on the internet, does a little research, determines what the Statute of Limitation appears to be, and then puts the claim on the back burner, or tries halfheartedly to work out the claim informally with the other side, thinking that he or she has plenty of time to bring an actual legal claim. Time passes and years later the Plaintiff finally gets around to consulting an attorney. Too often it turns out that the Plaintiff misunderstood the workings of the Statutes of Limitations and accordingly all, or at least part, of the claim is time-barred by a Statute of Limitation. For example, a Plaintiff might have a perfectly good breach of written contract case. Perhaps the date of breach is not in question, and accordingly the Plaintiff waits slightly less than four years to consult an attorney about bringing the claim. After all, no one likes lawsuits and maybe the Plaintiff tried to work things out with the other side but to no avail. It may be that the breach of contract claim is still good, since we are inside of the 4 year Statute of Limitation period of Code of Civil Procedure 337(a). However, it may be that there was a valid fraud claim that attached to this claim. For example, under California Civil Code Section 1710(4), entering into a contract without, at the time, intending to honor it, is actionable fraud. The Fraud claim may have entitled the Plaintiff to punitive damages, over and above actual breach of contract damages. Unfortunately though for the Plaintiff in our example, the Statute of Limitation for fraud is generally governed by Cal. Code of Civil Procedure Section 338(d), which provides for only a 3 year limitation period. By waiting, our prospective Plaintiff very likely let an important part of his or her claim become time-barred. Even worse, sometimes it turns out that the written contract is defective for some reason, possibly leaving the prospective Plaintiff with an otherwise perfectly good oral contract claim. But if the Plaintiff waited nearly four years to bring the claim (thinking that it was for breach of written contract) the claim is likely barred by the two year limitation period of Cal. Code of Civil Procedure Section 339 (1).
The point here is that it is not always straightforward which Statute of Limitation applies to a given case. Delay is never good where litigation is involved and the Statute of Limitations analysis can be complicated. In addition to the hazard of having all or part of your claim barred by a Statute of Limitation, you must also be wary of the doctrine of laches. Laches is an equitable doctrine that essentially means that if your claim sounds in equity, it may be time barred simply because your delay in bringing the claim unfairly prejudiced the defendants’ ability to defend the claim. A detailed discussion of laches is beyond the scope of this brief article, but its existence underscores the main point here, which is that delaying consulting an attorney when you have a matter serious enough to possibly merit a lawsuit is never a good thing, and can cause you to inadvertently allow your claim to effectively self-extinguish.
If you believe that you have a legal claim, do not delay. We invite you to contact Buffington Law Firm for a Free Legal Consultation. There is never any charge or obligation, all discussions are with an actual experienced attorney, and the attorney-client privilege applies to all discussions.
By Roger J. Buffington, Esq.