Considering a Lawsuit? Watch Out for Statute of Limitations.

English: Pre-Paid Legal Services headquarters ...

Headquarters of Pre-Paid Legal Services, Ada, OK (photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you have suffered an injury or damage and are considering a lawsuit, one crucial factor to be aware of is the statute of limitations. It is essential to file your lawsuit in a timely manner.

The law sets strict deadlines after which it is too late to file your claim. These laws exist to protect prospective defendants. It becomes increasingly difficult for a defendant to gather evidence and/or line up witnesses after many years have passed. Therefore, the law sets time limits on how long a plaintiff can take to file a lawsuit.

One reason possible plaintiffs tend to delay is because they often do not realize the full extent of their damages until some time has passed. For this reason, the statutes of limitations usually allow at least two years to file a suit. However, plaintiffs often wait too long.

An Alabama case involving an Oklahoma company and an Oklahoma plane crash illustrates the danger of waiting too long to file. The Alabama Supreme Court recently rejected a lawsuit related to a 2005 airplane crash in Ada, Okla. The July 2005 crash killed Harland Brent and Tina Stonecipher and their daughter Nicole. Harland Brent Stonecipher was a pilot for Pre-Paid Legal Services, based in Ada, and the son of the company’s founder, Harland C. Stonecipher.

According to the Insurance Journal, the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled that the second of two lawsuits related to the crash is “time-barred.” That’s a legal term for a lawsuit that is filed too late because of the statute of limitations.

Two lawsuits were filed after the crash. The first, which was timely filed, was filed by family members of the Stoneciphers against Teledyne Continental Motors in 2007. The suit alleged wrongful death and a defective product — specifically, a defective crankshaft in the aircraft’s engine. A National Transportation Safety Board report said several teeth on the engine’s camshaft were broken, ground down and/or missing and several teeth were sheared off the crankshaft. That suit ended in a settlement.

Teledyne then filed its own lawsuit in 2011 against the manufacturer of the crankshaft, seeking to recover $5 million in legal fees, plus the cost of the settlement. The manufacturer defendant filed a motion to dismiss, contending that Teledyne’s suit was too late due to a two-year statute of limitations.

A Circuit Court judge disagreed, ruling that a six-year statute of limitations on contract claims applied. However, the Supreme Court decided that the two-year limit applied, and the high court instructed the Circuit Court to dismiss the lawsuit.

Determining the statute of limitations governing a particular claim is not always easy, for several reasons:

• Multiple statutes: As the above case illustrates, various statutes govern various kinds of cases, and often there is a dispute over which statute applies to a particular case.

• Discovery of harm doctrine: There is sometimes a question about when the clock actually starts. The general rule is that the statute of limitations applies starting when the plaintiff knew or could have known that the injury or damage occurred. In the case of a plane crash or an auto accident, it is usually obvious when the injury happened. However, some injuries and damages do not come to light until much later. The “discovery of harm” doctrine, also called simply the “discovery rule,” says that the clock starts when the plaintiff first knew or could have known that the damage occurred.

• Tolling: Sometimes the law allows a deadline to be “tolled,” i.e., delayed, because of circumstances such as the age (e.g., a minor), mental competency or financial condition (e.g., bankruptcy) of the person suffering the damages.

These factors and several others point out how important it is, if you have experienced an injury or damage, to seek the advice of an attorney as soon as the damage is suspected, so you can consider your legal options while there is still time to pursue them.

By the way, the story of the founding of Pre-Paid Legal Services is interesting and relates to the topic of personal injury lawsuits. Pre-Paid Legal, which changed its name to LegalShield in 2011, was founded in 1972 in Ada by Harland C. Stonecipher. Stonecipher started Pre-Paid Legal after he was involved in a motor vehicle accident in 1969 in which he was injured and hospitalized. Although the other driver was cited in the accident, the other driver sued Stonecipher, and defending himself exhausted Stonecipher’s life savings. That gave Stonecipher the idea for Pre-Paid Legal, originally called The Sportsman’s Motor Club.