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Statute of Limitations

Civil Actions

In determining which statute of limitations will control in a civil action, the type of CAUSE OF ACTION that the claim will be pursued under is critical. States establish different deadlines depending on whether the cause of action involves a contract, personal injury, LIBEL, FRAUD, or other claim.

Recovered Memory: Stopping the Clock

Statutes of limitations are intended to encourage the resolution of legal claims within a reasonable amount of time. Courts and legislatures have had to reconsider the purpose of time limits in dealing with the controversial issue of RECOVERED MEMORY by child SEXUAL ABUSE victims. For the most part, the clock has been stopped until a victim remembers the abuse.

In the 1980s some mental health therapists began exploring the nature of child sexual abuse. They contended that memories of childhood trauma are so disturbing that the child represses them. Many years later, while in therapy or by happenstance, the person remembers the traumatic events. Therapists built on this concept, working with patients to fully recover these memories.

Victims of child sexual abuse who sought to sue their abusers for damages faced a statute of limitations question: Had the time expired to file a civil lawsuit because the memory of abuse was not recovered until many years after the actual abuse? Courts that faced this issue for the first time sought ways to circumvent the time barrier. One method was to apply the "discovery rule" found in TORT LAW. The discovery rule applies if the injury is one that is not readily perceptible as having an external source. Thus, a person who has serious mental health problems but does not know the cause will be allowed to toll (suspend the running of) the statute of limitations until he or she discovers that the injury was caused by the defendant's tortious conduct.

Legislatures have been urged to amend their statutes of limitations to permit recovered memory plaintiffs to sue their abusers. Between 1989 and 1995 24 states had amended their laws. By 2003, 42 states had codified some form of a recovered-memory law on their books, while one state admitted recovered-memory evidence pursuant to its COMMON LAW rules. Typically recovered-memory laws provide that the action must be filed within a certain number of years after the plaintiff either reaches the age of majority or knew or had reason to know that sexual abuse caused the injury. Because of these judicial and legislative changes, many lawsuits have been filed alleging child sexual abuse that occurred many years before, sometimes as long as 20 years earlier.


Isaac, Rael Jean. 2001. "Down Pseudo-Memory Lane." Priorities for Health 13.

Pezdek, Kathy, and William P. Banks, eds. 1996. The Recovered Memory/False Memory Debate. San Diego: Academic Press.


Child Abuse; Sexual Abuse; Sex Offenses.

Once the cause of action is determined, the date of the injury must be fixed. A cause of action ordinarily arises when the party has a right to apply to the proper court for relief. Some states, for example, require a person to bring a lawsuit for breach of contract within six years from the date the contract was breached. The action cannot be started until the contract has actually been violated, even though serious disagreements between the parties might have occurred earlier. Conversely, the time limit within which to bring an action for fraud does not begin until the fraud has been discovered.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationFree Legal Encyclopedia: Special power to Strategic Lawsuits against Public ParticipationStatute of Limitations - Criminal Actions, Civil Actions, Recovered Memory: Stopping The Clock, Waiving The Defense, Tolling The Statute