Think of the time period in which a person has to file a lawsuit as a window of time. That window, in the law, is termed the statute of limitations. Each state sets their own statutes of limitations, and even within a state, like New York, the windows of time aren't all the same size.
Generally, only the most heinous crimes have no statute of limitations, meaning they can be prosecuted at whatever point in the future there is evidence that points to a suspect. Civil matters, like collecting a debt, usually have relatively short statutes of limitations in New York state, although the time period for enforcing a judgment can be decades.
The New York Statute of Limitations
The best time to go to court over an issue is relatively close to the time the issue arises. Think of an automobile accident. A week or two after the crash, witnesses still remember the details, the cars involved haven't yet been repaired, and everybody knows whether it was raining or snowing or the sun was shining brightly in a blue sky. Ten years later, good luck! Although the evidence may have been gathered just after the crash, witnesses may have moved to France or developed amnesia or died, and the cars have probably been sold, traded in or sent to the junk yard.
This is why New York, like other states, limits the time within which a lawsuit can be brought. This is true for both civil cases and most criminal cases. That means that a case can only be brought before the statute of limitations period has run.
For example, the statute is three years for a lawsuit over an automobile accident. That means that the parties have a time limit of exactly 36 months from the date of the accident to file a complaint. A few crimes have no statute of limitations, but most do, and the prosecutors must bring the charge within that period or lose the right to bring it. Once the statute of limitations runs out, the action is termed "time-barred."
Criminal vs. Civil Statutes of Limitations
The big division between court cases in the state of New York, and every other state, separates civil cases from criminal cases. Criminal cases are brought by a New York prosecutor or district attorney "for the people." They charge individuals with crimes and those convicted face criminal penalties, including jail time. Civil cases cannot result in incarceration. They are most often seeking damages for some act of another that caused them harm. Although injunctive relief is always possible, generally damages means money.
Statutes of limitations apply to all civil wrongs and most criminal wrongs occurring in New York. But the time periods do not divide into civil or criminal. The New York legislature has set specific statutes of limitation periods for different types of civil litigation. It also has specified the amount of time a prosecutor has to prosecute various crimes.
Civil Statutes of Limitations
Most civil actions in New York have statutes of limitations that fall within a range of one year to six years from the moment the event occurred or, in certain cases, from the moment the plaintiff learned of the injury. Civil actions for assault, libel or slander, intentional infliction of emotional distress and false imprisonment must be brought within one year. A person bringing a wrongful death suit must do so within two years. A patient has two years and six months to bring a medical malpractice action, this time dating from the date of the malpractice or from the end of the continuous treatment rendered by the defendant.
A three-year statute of limitations applies to many civil actions in New York. These include actions for negligent infliction of emotional distress, car accident, negligence resulting in personal injury, slip and fall, and trespass. A store that wishes to sue over unpaid store credit card debt has four years to bring an action.
Lawsuits for breach of contracts, written or oral, must be brought within six years from the date of the breach. This six-year statute also applies to actions over unpaid mortgages. What about the 20-year statute? This applies to collecting on a judgment. It runs from the date of the judgment. A litigant also has 20 years to collect alimony, maintenance and child support.
Criminal Statute of Limitations
Criminal statutes of limitations are also premised, under New York law, on the principal of fairness. It isn't considered fair to charge an individual years after a crime occurs, and for the same reasons, it isn't fair to delay civil cases because witnesses disappear or forget, and evidence is lost.
The least serious crimes in New York are termed petty crimes like loitering. Next are misdemeanors which are usually punishable by not more than one year in county jail. The most serious crimes are felonies, and a felony conviction can result in a year or more in state prison. It makes sense that felonies have longer statutes of limitations than misdemeanors, since these are more dangerous crimes.
Generally, a petty crime must be brought to court within a year from the date of the offense, while prosecutors have two years from the date of the offense to bring misdemeanors. Misdemeanors can include crimes like simple assault and battery, receiving stolen property and petty theft. Some felonies, like manslaughter, robbery and serious theft must be brought within five years from the offense. The worst crimes have no statute of limitations under state law; Class A felonies, rape, and first-degree murder can be brought at any time. They are never time-barred.
What about child sex abuse charges? That's a serious crime and it has a different style of statute of limitations. Victims can bring a civil action until they pass their 28th birthday. Criminal charges can be brought until the victim passes their 55th birthday.
Teo Spengler earned a JD from U.C. Berkeley Law School. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an MA and an MFA in English/writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.