A statute of limitations is a law setting forth the maximum period of time after certain events that legal proceedings based on those events may be begun. For example, a state might have a statute limiting prosecution for misdemeanors to two years. In such a state, if a person is discovered to have committed a misdemeanor three years ago, he cannot now be prosecuted for it.
A crime (in the case of a criminal prosecution) or a cause of action (in a civil suit) is said to have accrued when the event beginning its time limitation occurs. Sometimes this is the event itself that is the subject of the suit or prosecution (such as a crime or personal injury), but it may also be an event such as the discovery of a condition one wishes to redress, such as discovering a defect in a manufactured good.
One reason for statutes of limitations is fairness; that is, over time memories fade, evidence is lost or never found, and people need to get on with their lives without legal intrusions from the past. The length of these statutes varies from country to country and state to state and often depend on the type of civil action or the seriousness of the crime. Some crimes such as murder are so horrific to society that they have no statute of limitations.
Another reason for statutes of limitations is closure or certainty. At some point, society will no longer make its tribunals available for dispute resolution or law enforcement people will stop using public resources to investigate a given crime. For civil actions, statutes of limitations usually range between one and ten years. In California, for example, the statute of limitations for most personal injury actions (including those resulting from car accidents) is one year from the date of the accident. In Nevada it is two years, and in New Mexico, three.
Once the statute of limitations on a case runs out, future ligitation is foreclosed. Most jurisdictions provide that limitations are tolled under certain circumstances. Tolling will prevent the time for filing suit from running while the condition exists. Examples of such circumstances are if the aggreived party (plaintiff) is a minor, or the defendant has filed a bankruptcy proceeding. In those instances, in most jurisdictions, the running of limitations is tolled until the circumstance (i.e. the injured party reaches majority in the former or the bankruptcy proceeding is concluded in the later) no longer exists.
A special case of the statute of limitations is a statute of repose. This applies to buildings and properties, and limits the time during which an action may lie based upon defects or hazards connected to the construction of the building or premises. An example of this would be that if a person is electrocuted by a wiring defect incorporated into a structure in, say, 1990, a state law may allow him or his heirs to sue only before 1997 in the case of an open (patent) defect, or before 2000 in the case of a hidden defect.
There may be a number of factors which will affect the tolling of a statute of limitations. In many cases, the discovery of the harm (as in a medical malpractice claim where the fact or the impact of the doctor's mistake is not immediately apparent) starts the statute running. In some jurisdictions the action is said to have not accrued until the harm is discovered, while in others the action accrues when the malpractice occurs, but an action to redress the harm is tolled until the injured party discovers the harm. An action to redress a tort committed against a minor is generally tolled in most cases until the child reaches the age of majority. A ten-year-old who is injured in a car accident might therefore be able to bring suit one, two or three years after he turns eighteen.