What is a Statute of Limitations?
A statute of limitations is a deadline imposed by the law which represents the maximum time after an event has occurred that legal proceedings based on that event may be initiated. For example, if your automobile is damaged in a motor vehicle collision on December 21, 2012 the two year statute of limitations allows you to sue the parties responsible for that loss provided the lawsuit is commenced on or before December 20, 2014.
Why do Statutes of Limitations Exist?
Essentially, limitations periods exist to prevent spoliation of evidence and allow people to get on with their lives. Over time, evidence can be corrupted or disappear, memories fade, witnesses pass away, crime scenes are changed, and companies dispose of records. The best time to bring a lawsuit is while the evidence is not lost and as close as possible to the alleged illegal behavior. Moreover, people have a right to get on with their lives and not have legal battles from their past arise unexpectedly. The injured party has a responsibility to quickly bring about charges so that the process can begin.
Examples of Civil Statutes of Limitations
Assault and Battery, 2 years 42 Pa. Consol. Stat. § 5524(1)
Contract (in writing), 4 years 42 Pa. Consol. Stat. § 5525(7), (8)
Contract (oral or not in writing), 4 years 42 Pa. Consol. Stat. § 5525(3)
False Imprisonment, 2 years 42 Pa. Consol. Stat. § 5524(1)
Fraud, 2 years 42 Pa. Consol. Stat. § 5524(7)
Enforcing Court Judgments, 4 years 42 Pa. Consol. Stat. § 5525(5)
Legal Malpractice, 2 years 42 Pa. Consol. Stat. § 5524(7)
Libel, 1 year 42 Pa. Consol. Stat. § 5523(1)
Medical Malpractice, 2 years 42 Pa. Consol. Stat. § 5524(7)
Personal Injury, 2 years 42 Pa. Consol. Stat. § 5524(2)
Product Liability, 2 years 42 Pa. Consol. Stat. § 5524(7)
Property Damage, 2 years 42 Pa. Consol. Stat. § 5524(3)
Slander, 1 year 42 Pa. Consol. Stat. § 5523(1)
Trespass, 2 years 42 Pa. Consol. Stat. § 5524(4)
Wrongful Death, 2 years 42 Pa. Consol. Stat. § 5524(2)
Examples of Criminal Statutes of Limitations
Arson, 5 years 42 Pa. Consol. Stat. § 5552(b)(1)
Assault and Battery, 2 or 5 years 42 Pa. Consol. Stat. § 5552(a) or (b)(1)
Burglary, 5 years 42 Pa. Consol. Stat. § 5552(b)(1)
Disorderly Conduct, 2 years 42 Pa. Consol. Stat. § 5552(b)(1)
Kidnapping, 5 years 42 Pa. Consol. Stat. § 5552(b)(1)
Manslaughter, voluntary, No time limit 42 Pa. Consol. Stat. § 5551(1)
Manslaughter, involuntary, 2 years 42 Pa. Consol. Stat. § 5552(b)(1)
Murder, No time limit 42 Pa. Consol. Stat. § 5551(1)
Murder, second degree, No time limit 42 Pa. Consol. Stat. § 5551(1)
Rape, 12 years 42 Pa. Consol. Stat. § 5552(b)(1)
Receiving Stolen Property, 2 years 42 Pa. Consol. Stat. § 5552(a)
Robbery, 5 years 42 Pa. Consol. Stat. § 5552(b)(1)
Theft, 5 years 42 Pa. Consol. Stat. § 5552(b)(1)
The Discovery Rule
Generally, once the prescribed statutory period has expired, the complaining party is barred from bringing suit. The “discovery rule," however, is an exception to that rule, and its application tolls or delays the running of the statute of limitations. The “discovery rule" provides that where the existence of the injury is not known to the complaining party and such knowledge cannot reasonably be ascertained within the prescribed statutory period, the limitations period does not begin to run until the discovery of the injury is reasonably possible. Hayward v. Medical Center of Beaver Cty., 608 A.2d 1040, 1043 (Pa. 1992). An example of the discovery rule can be found in asbestos cases; the exposure to the cancer causing agent can occur years before the injury manifests itself. The discovery rule allows the statute of limitations to begin to run from the discovery of the illness, not from the unknown exposure to the asbestos.
The equitable tolling doctrine is another way that a legal action may be initiated after the statute of limitations has expired; where the plaintiff has been actively misled regarding a cause of action the statute of limitations is tolled or extended. See Oshiver v. Levin, Fishbein, Sedran & Berman, 38 F.3d 1380, 1387 (3d Cir. 1994); See also Balko v. Carnegie Fin. Group Inc. (In re Balko), 382 B.R. 717, 721 (W.D. Pa. Bankr. 2008). As noted by the third Circuit Court of Appeals in their application of 42 Pa.C.S. § 5524: “There arethree principal, though not exclusive, situations in which equitable tolling may be appropriate: (1) where the defendant has actively misled the plaintiff respecting the plaintiff's cause of action; (2) where the plaintiff in some extraordinary way has been prevented from asserting his or her rights; or (3) where the plaintiff has timely asserted his or her rights mistakenly in the wrong forum." Oshiver v. Levin, Fishbein, Sedran & Berman, 38 F.3d 1380, 1387 (3d Cir. 1994); See also School District of City of Allentown v. Marshall, 657 F.2d 16, 19-20 (3d Cir. 1981) (quoting Smith v. American President Line s, Ltd., 571 F.2d 102, 109 (2d Cir. 1978); Miller v. Beneficial Management Corp., 977 F.2d 834, 845 (3d Cir. 1992). Thus, where the plaintiff has been misled regarding the reason for his or her discharge, the equitable tolling doctrine provides the plaintiff with the full statutory limitations period, starting from the date the facts supporting the plaintiff's cause of action either become apparent to the plaintiff or should have become apparent to a person in the plaintiff's position with a reasonably prudent regard for his or her rights. See Oshiver v. Levin, Fishbein, Sedran & Berman, 38 F.3d 1380, 1389-90 (3d Cir. 1994).
Fraudulent concealment represents still another way to proceed once the statute of limitations has passed. Fraudulent concealment arises where a defendant has attempted to mislead the plaintiff and thus prevent the plaintiff from suing on time. It requires a showing of inequitable conduct on the part of the defendant. In contrast, for equitable tolling, all the plaintiff need show is that he or she could not, by the exercise of reasonable diligence, have discovered essential information bearing on his or her claim. If fraudulent concealment is shown, the court must subtract from the period of limitations the entire period in which the tolling condition is in effect, for otherwise the defendant would obtain a benefit from his or her inequitable conduct. See Oshiver v. Levin, Fishbein, Sedran & Berman, 38 F.3d 1380, 1389-90 (3d Cir. 1994). The doctrine of fraudulent concealment is an exception to the requirement that a complaining party must file suit within the statutory period. Where, through fraud or concealment, the defendant causes the plaintiff to relax his vigilance or deviate from his right of inquiry, the defendant is estopped from invoking the bar of the statute of limitations. Aquilino v. Phila. Catholic Archdiocese, 884 A.2d 1269, 1278 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2005); See also Glenbrook Leasing Co. v. Beausang, 839 A.2d 437, 443 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2003), aff’d 881 A.2d 1266 (Pa. 2005); Kingston Coal Company v. Felton Min. Co., Inc., 690 A.2d 284, 290 (Pa. Super Ct. 1997) (citing Molineux v. Reed, 532 A. 2d 792, 794 (Pa. 1987).To establish fraudulent concealment, the defendant's conduct need not rise to fraud or concealment in the strictest sense, that is, with an intent to deceive; unintentional fraud or concealment is sufficient.
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