Every state has statutes of limitations, the time within which civil lawsuits must be filed or criminal proceedings must be brought against an individual. These laws are designed to keep frivolous lawsuits out of the courts, to ensure that evidence and eyewitness testimony remain fresh, and to allow individuals the relief of knowing that criminal charges can no longer be filed against them after a certain period of time.
Why the Statute of Limitations is Important
Ignoring the statute of limitations can be fatal to your lawsuit and to your ability to collect compensation from a party. It can also prevent the state from bring criminal charges against a defendant. Determining which statute of limitations applies to your case involves several factors:
- Is your case civil or criminal?
- Is the defendant an individual or a political subdivision?
- If yours is a personal injury case, what is your cause of action?
- When did the injury or loss occur?
- In which state must you file your lawsuit?
Product liability or medical malpractice cases may come under a different statute of limitations than other personal injury cases. They may also require prior notice or a certificate attesting to the claim's validity. If you are suing the state, a municipality or a public agency, there are shorter timelines. Specific notice requirements must first be met before you can file.
Violating the Statute of Limitations
If you fail to bring your lawsuit within the applicable statute of limitations, you may forfeit your right to collect compensation for an injury or loss. In some Delaware injury cases, you may be able to use the discovery rule, which can extend the statute of limitations from the date an injury is first discovered or should reasonably have been discovered. For example, you may have been exposed to asbestos while working at a job 20 years ago, but the symptoms of mesothelioma did not manifest until recently. The statute of limitations would begin when the problem was discovered.
Criminal Statute of Limitations
The statute of limitations for most felonies is five years in Delaware, but murder charges and charges for many sexual offenses may be brought against the offender at any time. Class A misdemeanor charges must be brought within three years of the act. These include many violent or serious property offenses such as terroristic threats, unlawful sexual contact, reckless burning or exploding, or unauthorized computer access. Class B and C misdemeanors have a two year statute of limitations unless the offense involved fraud or a breach of fiduciary duty. In these cases, the statute extends to three years.
Civil Statute of Limitations
Delaware law imposes a two year statute of limitations for civil matters involving personal injury. These cases include product liability, medical malpractice, libel, slander, or damage to personal property. Suits for breach of written contracts must be filed within three years. Lawsuits involving breach of an oral contract have a two-year statute of limitations. You have three years for suits involving collection of a debt on an account.
Tolling of Statute of Limitations
The statute of limitations may be paused in civil cases if the victim was a minor at the time the injury occurred, or if he was mentally incompetent when he was injured. The deadline may also be tolled if a defendant files bankruptcy. For injury cases that are not medical malpractice, you have until three years from your 18th birthday to file a suit. In medical malpractice cases, minors under the age of six have either two years or until their sixth birthday to file. The statute of limitations on prosecuting criminal offenses may be tolled if the accused is a fugitive.
Speak with an Attorney
A local attorney will be familiar with the applicable statute of limitations regarding your particular lawsuit or criminal offense, but you must fully disclose all the facts and circumstances of your legal issues. Contact an attorney to inquire about the statute of limitations that applies to your case.