When does the time for bringing a lawsuit run out? In about 1920, a family friend borrowed my grandfather’s welding outfit. The family lore reports that it was never returned. I certainly can not expect to do anything about it now. The law decides when enough is enough. There is a limit as to when you are able to make claims against others; similarly, there is a limit as to when others are able to make claims against you. Sound public policy dictates that the right to make claims does not exist indefinitely. Instead, the Pennsylvania Legislature has set time limits on when various types of claims may be brought. Failure to bring a claim within these time limits will preclude the claim from ever being brought at all.
While many claims may be brought for adjudication in front of administrative agencies, such as Workers’ Compensation, tax claims, and various other types of claims, this article deals with the claims that are filed in the initial court of record, generally the Court of Common Pleas.
Most claims that have an effect on business are those claims that relate to the enforcement of contracts or the collection of money. Generally these claims must be brought within four years of the time that the claim arose. If goods were shipped and the invoice was never paid, then the claim for payment expires four years after the payment was due. The issues become more problematic, however, when the parties have a course of dealing which could serve to “toll” the statute of limitations. For instance, if the shipping party creates an open account, and ships more merchandise from time to time, and the account has become so long overdue that the original invoice is still not completely paid, the parties may have effectively modified their original contract. Where there has been such a course of conduct, the statute of limitations can be “tolled;” i.e., it does not start to run from the date the first payment was overdue, but rather it begins to run from the date of the last payment on the account.
Be careful, however, as to when the actual date of the statute of limitation has run. Sending a letter or making a claim in the small claims court (in Pennsylvania known as Magisterial District Court) won’t do the trick. You have met the requirements of the statute only when you have filed your Complaint in the Prothonotary’s office of the Court of Common Pleas and have delivered the Complaint to the Sheriff for service of process. As an example, were you to file a case in the Magisterial District Court on a claim three years and eleven months old, and you were not able to get service of process on the defendant within the four years, you would not be able to pursue your claim if the defendant claimed that he or she has the protection of the statute of limitations. The same is not true, however, if you filed in the Court of Common Pleas. As long as the Complaint is filed before the end of the four year period and service has been attempted, the defendant cannot claim the protection under the statute of limitations.
The statute of limitations may be held in abeyance or tolled by the incapacity of one of the parties. For example: one of the parties to a simple loan transaction is sixteen years of age at the time that she loans fifty dollars to her friend who is nineteen. Five years pass, and the lender wants to collect his money. The statute of limitations has been tolled during the minority of our budding entrepreneur. She has four years from the time that her minority ceases, in this case until she has reached the age of twenty-two.
Mental incapacity and imprisonment do not extend the time limits to file civil actions. It is possible in each of these cases to either have a guardian appointed who can represent the interests of the person, or, in the case of imprisonment, service of process may be made upon the inmate.
The time to file your claim may be stretched if the defendant moves out of the Commonwealth for a period in excess of four months or conceals his or her whereabouts by using a name unknown to the creditor.
Suppose a claim is made against you in court that a debt that you owe from five years ago remains unpaid. Be careful. Your failure to raise this relatively strong defense may be waived if you do not raise it. Of course if you are the one to whom the money is owed, you may want to think twice about incurring the costs to prepare a lawsuit and file it if you know that a strong defense is waiting to be propounded against your claim. It certainly would be better to act within the proper time limits and not need to depend on the defendant to forget about his or her rights. Additionally, it may be construed as bad faith to continue to attempt to collect a debt that is legally uncollectible due to the passing of the statute of limitations deadline.
Other claims that must be brought within the four-year statute of limitations include the following:
- An action upon a contract, under seal or otherwise, for the sale, construction or furnishing of tangible personal property or fixtures,
- An action upon an express contract not founded upon an instrument in writing,
- An action upon a contract implied in law,
- An action upon a judgment or decree of any court of the United States or any other state,
- An action upon any official bond of a public official, officer or employee,
- An action upon a negotiable or nonnegotiable bond, note or other similar instrument in writing, and
- An action upon a contract obligation or liability founded upon a writing not mentioned above, under seal or otherwise.
Claims for damages for injury against the Commonwealth and its subdivisions generally must be made within six months of the date of the injury and the plaintiff in such cases must also serve a report upon the Attorney General within that time. If the claim is against a political subdivision, the time may be extended by up to ninety days of disability and, in the case of seeking damages arising from death, the statute begins to run from the date of death.
Other claims that are subject to the six-month statute of limitation are:
- Claims against any officer of any government unit for anything done in the execution of his office;
- Petitions to collect a deficiency judgment (the rest of the money due) on property that was sold at a judicial sale; and
- Petitions to set aside a judicial sale of property.
Claims for libel (general print or media publication of defamatory material) and slander (verbal publication of defamatory material) and claims for invasion of privacy must be brought within one year. It is clear that the Legislature did not intend for these types of claims to remain viable for a long period of time. Perhaps more important to the business community, however, is the applicability of the one year statute to a claim upon a bond given as security, or upon any payment or performance bond. If you have secured work through the provision of a bond from a contractor, and the contractor has not done the expected work, you only have one year to make a claim in court against the bonding company.
The two-year statute applies to many more types of claims, most of which arise from intentional or negligent conduct. If someone fell on your premises and makes a claim for damages, or if someone is injured in an automobile accident, he or she generally must make the claim within two years from the date of the injury. Other types of tort claims to which this period applies are:
- Assault, battery, false imprisonment, false arrest, malicious prosecution or malicious abuse of process;
- An action to recover damages for injuries to the person or for the death of an individual caused by the wrongful act or neglect or unlawful violence or negligence of another;
- An action for taking, detaining or injuring personal property, and an action for specific recovery of the personal property;
- An action for waste or trespass of real property;
- An action against any officer of any government unit for the nonpayment of money or the non-delivery of property collected upon execution or otherwise in his possession;
- An action to recover damages for injury or death caused by exposure to asbestos provided that the two years begins to run on the date that a physician advises that the person has been injured by the exposure; and
- An action to recover a civil penalty or forfeiture if the same is provided in some other statute.
Generally, the two year statute applies to any other action or proceeding to recover damages for injury to person or property which is founded on the negligent, intentional, or otherwise tortious conduct or any other action or proceeding sounding in trespass, including deceit or fraud.
The statute of limitations is five years for the following:
- Reviving a judgment that has been secured on real property;
- An action for specific performance of a contract for the sale of real property or damages for not performing the sale;
- An action to enforce any equity of redemption or any implied or resulting trust as to real property; and
- A proceeding to collect damages to property, if no part of the property has been taken by eminent domain.
If there is no statute of limitation set forth in the law, and if the matter is not specifically excluded from a specific time within which to bring suit, the statute of limitations is six years.
Any property which is ownerless is given to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania through the process of escheat. If you want to claim such escheated property, the time limit is set at fifteen years.
If you have secured a judgment against an individual or corporation and would like to execute against the defendant’s personal property, this process must be started within twenty years. The twenty year statute of limitation also applies to an instrument in writing and under seal; although, after June 27, 2018, the special time limitation for instruments under seal will disappear and be governed by the shorter period referenced above.
There is a twenty-one year statute of limitations that generally applies to claims seeking possession of real property. This is commonly known as adverse possession. If a person takes possession of your land, you have twenty-one years to take action to regain your possession of the land. The same period of time applies to claims against land surveyors.
It would seem that twenty-one years is a long time to bring a law suit, but there are three cases where there is no limitation on the time to bring a suit. An attorney may be sued by or on behalf of a client to enforce any implied or resulting trust as to real property. Additionally the Commonwealth, a county, or an institution district may make a claim at any time either against the real or personal property of persons who were public charges or persons who were legally liable to pay for the maintenance and support of such public charges to recover the cost of their maintenance and support.
Buildings and construction projects generally last a long time and defects might not be readily apparent for many years. There is a special twelve-year limitation period which applies to any person performing or furnishing the design, planning, supervision or observation of construction or construction of any improvement to real property. The same time limit applies to landscape architects.
It is important to remember that the issue of how much time there is to bring a claim also has an effect upon the person against whom the claim is made. Generally, the statute of limitations is a strong defense to claims made beyond the appropriate time; however, the defense is not self-executing. If an apparently time-barred claim is made against you, your statute of limitations defense will be waived unless you act to raise it. Of course, it is wise to consult your attorney in all matters of litigation, whether prosecuting a claim or defending one, so you can be sure that all of your rights are protected.
The attorneys at Wolf, Baldwin & Associates, P.C. have been practicing law primarily in Montgomery County, Berks County, and Chester County for a combined total of over fifty years. Being general practitioners, we have the breadth of knowledge to help you learn and protect your rights in a wide range of civil litigation cases. If you have questions about statutes of limitations and their application to a particular claim, you can consult with one of our attorneys. Let us help you discover your rights. Please contact us now to schedule an appointment. We look forward to hearing from you.
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