Should There Be a Uniform Statute of Limitations?

by Rich Cassidy on December 10, 2012

The Simplex Time Recorder Co. Gardner, MA, USA. Photo by Barbirossa.

Regular readers of this blog are likely familiar with the Uniform Law Commission. It’s an important part of my professional life and a subject I write about frequently.

Currently, I chair the Commission’s Committee on Scope and Program. That Committee is responsible for vetting proposals for new uniform and model laws and making recommendations to the Executive Committee about future study and drafting committees.

The weekend before last, members of the Uniform Law Commission leadership team met with members of the leadership team for the Uniform Law Conference of Canada. The ULCC, which was founded in 1918, seeks “to harmonize the laws of the provinces and territories of Canada, and where appropriate, the federal laws as well.” (Uniform Law Conference of Canada Home Page)

We talked about potential joint projects, and one such project is underway. Together, we are working to draft a statute on the Interjurisdictional Recognition of Advance Planning Documents that would provide for cross-border recognition of powers of attorney for property, healthcare, healthcare instructions, and related documents.

We also learned about an impending Canadian project that may have potential for the United States. The ULCC has a Uniform Limitations of Actions Act and is considering updating that statute.

After hearing about their project, our leadership team is evaluating whether such a proposal has merit for the United States.

The idea seems worth serious consideration. Many states have similar principles that guide the law in this area. For example, most statutes of limitations have a discovery rule. That is, a statute of limitations begins to run when the claimant knows sufficient facts so that a reasonable person would understand that they have a claim. Otherwise a claim could expire before an injured party knows that of the claim. Most states also agree that after some reasonable period of time, claims should expire. Potential defendants are eventually entitled to certainty.

Animated watchTick tock, tick tock. Time marches on, and as it does, claims expire at different rates in different states. Typically, statutes of limitation are treated as procedural, so that the limitation established by law in the forum state governs. Since each state has its own statute of limitation scheme, knowing exactly when a claim will expire requires identifying the claim, the place in which litigation might be brought, and then finding the applicable statute. All this can make figuring out a particular statute of limitations difficult.

That difficulty can cause unjust results. Defendants can believe that the applicable statute of limitations has expired and dispose of records and other evidence that may prove critical for their defense, or to a plaintiff trying to make a claim. Defendants can’t identify the period of limitation unless they know where litigation might be brought.

Plaintiff’s counsel may also have difficulty identifying the right statute of limitations. Missing a statute of limitations is one of the most common claims of legal malpractice.

Would a uniform statute of limitations simplify the law and advance the interests of justice? The answer seems to be “yes,” at least if such an act were widely adopted.

One foreseeable problem relates to the time periods established by particular statute of limitation schemes. Different states often select varying time periods for the same claims. For example, some states are very negative about personal injury claims. Some such states have very short limitations as to personal injuries.

Other states have particularly short statutes of limitations relating to local industries that are favored by state policymakers. For example, here in Vermont, the statute of limitations on most personal-injury claims is three years. But the statute of limitations on claims arising from the sport of skiing is only one year.

Could consensus be reached on a reasonable scheme that could be adopted by many states? That is the key question for determining whether a uniform law on the statute of limitations would be useful and successful.

No decision has been made on the question whether the Uniform Law Commission should begin a study of this potential project. I’d love to hear what readers think about whether such a project is worthwhile.

Please feel free to comment.

Rich

(The Animated Watch above is courtesy of Ebaychatter0)
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Addendum

Readers,

Let me add three points of clarification, based on the comments I have received so far:

1. The idea of a Uniform Statute of Limitations is for civil, not criminal cases;

2. The idea is for different periods of limitation for different categories of claims, not one single limit. So there might be one period of limitation for tort claims, another for contracts, etc.; and

3. The idea is that many states and territories would adopt the same scheme to make that applicable limitation the same no matter in which jurisdiction the claim is ultimately filed.

I hope that clears up any confusion.

Rich

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