Ask Attorney Bernie: How much time do you need to bring your lawsuit in Pa.?

By Bernard J. Rabik
Erie Times
August 23, 2019

Bernard J. Rabik

Question: What are statutes of limitations?

Answer: Simply put, the statutes of limitations describe how long you have to bring charges or a claim against someone who has victimized you. Each crime has its own statute of limitations, though they are the same for many of them. The idea is that they keep someone from being charged with a crime or sued for a wrongdoing long after the incident is supposed to have happened. If you hit another auto with your vehicle, the justice system says the other driver can’t wait 30 years to bring you to court.

Not all crimes have statutes of limitations, though. For example, someone could never admit to murder feeling secure that time had run out to commence legal proceedings against him or her.

State’s statutes of limitations

You may think that if you are the victim of someone else’s actions, you would be swift in taking them to court. But, this isn’t always the case. For that matter, you may not actually know who was responsible for an accident or injury. If you were hurt, your main concern may be looking after your health in the immediate future. There are all kinds of circumstances, which could delay you from doing the obvious.

When a plaintiff misses the cutoff date, the defendant can use the statute of limitations as a defense against any civil lawsuit that is filed. If the defendant establishes that the statute of limitations applies and has indeed “run,” the court will normally dismiss the case, unless some rare exception applies to extend the filing deadline.

Civil statutes of limitations

These civil offenses have a one-year statute of limitations: libel and slander.

Next are those with a statute of limitations of two years: Assault and battery, false imprisonment, fraud, legal malpractice, personal injury, product liability, trespass and wrongful death.

Finally, the following civil offenses have a statute of limitations of four years: breach of a written contract, breach of a non-written contract and enforcing court judgments.

Special rules for minors

Except in cases of wrongful death, an “unemancipated minor” must file suit within two years of his or her birthday. An “unemancipated minor” is a person under 18 who is not totally self-supporting. In cases where the minor is emancipated, or totally self-supporting, at the time of the injury, he or she must file suit within two years of the date when the injury occurred.

Workers’ compensation

A workers’ compensation claim must be filed within three years of the date of the injury or disability. You have 120 days to report the injury to your employer.

Criminal offenses

Criminal offenses also have statutes of limitations, although, as I mentioned above, not all of them do.

These crimes have a two-year statute of limitations: Disorderly conduct, involuntary manslaughter and receiving stolen property.

The following have a five-year statute of limitations: Arson, assault and battery (depending on the case, it may only be two), burglary, kidnapping, robbery and theft. You can be charged with rape 12 years after the alleged incident. First-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter have no statute of limitations.

Space restrictions have prevented me from defining or explaining any of the aforementioned civil and criminal offenses. Address your specific questions to me.

Catholic clergy abuse and statute of limitations

A year ago, Pennsylvania’s grand jury report on sexual abuse committed by Catholic priests produced copious pages of shocking detail and national impact.

This report resulted in arrests of priests in Michigan, protests in Maryland, the ouster of a cardinal in Washington, sweeping new legislation in New York, and even new policies at the Vatican.

Yet, what did not happen was the one thing that the grand jurors actually called for: legislative action in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania has not gotten rid of the criminal statute of limitations for child sexual abuse or opened the window enabling victims to bring civil suits against past abusers and the institutions that protected them. A bill has passed the State House but stalled in the State Senate. The lobbying effort by the Catholic Church was intense.

While lobbying spending on specific issues is hard to track in our state, two law firms released a report showing the Catholic Church spent more than $700,000 in Pennsylvania in 2018, more in just one year than it spent in a seven-year period in New Jersey, Massachusetts and several other states. In short, the Catholic Church lobbying costs spiked in Pennsylvania as the statute of limitations debate raged.

A bill has been reintroduced to eliminate the criminal statute of limitations, which currently blocks cases in the state after the victim turn 50, younger than many victims who have come forward.

Landmark Superior Court ruling

In August, the Pennsylvania Superior Court has ruled that a sexual abuse case from the 1970s may move forward. The key component in the Superior Court ruling involved a new count of conspiracy and fraud on the part of the abuser’s superiors. The lawsuit, instead of focusing on the predator priest, charges the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown with conspiracy, fraud and constructive fraud. In some ways, the counts of conspiracy and fraud are easier to prove given the mountain of evidence provided in the grand jury report on each diocese in Pennsylvania.

Statute of limitations can make or break case

Be certain to consult an attorney for a better understanding of all time limits that apply to your situation and any possibilities for extending the applicable deadline. In short, the law in this area is complicated.



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