In general terms, a statute of limitation sets a time limit on how long you have to file a lawsuit. As with most aspects of the law, there are the rules, then there are the fine points and the there are the exceptions.
For example, suppose you are injured in a car accident. You were a passenger in your friend's car and you were hurt when your friend's car was involved in a collision with a New York City Transit Authority bus.
Now you have a claim, or "cause of action", to use the ancient and traditional phrase, in negligence. You were injured - through no fault of your own - because one or both of the drivers involved in the accident failed to exercise proper care while operating their respective vehicles.
Statutes of limitation can be found in the Article 2 of the New York State CPLR - Civil Practice Law and Rules. The basic rule in accident cases is that you have three years from the date of the accident to start a lawsuit. In our example, one of the defendants will be the Transit Authority, which is a part of New York City's government.
But in our example, you must also look in a completely different place: the General Municipal Law. Buried in that set of laws is a provision that shortens your time to sue the City from three years down to one year and ninety days.
Other exceptions to general statute-of-limitation rules extend the time, rather than shorten it. For example, let's say you are the victim of fraud. You might not discover the fraud for days, weeks or even months after it happens. Suppose someone forges your name on a deed to your house. You might not know until months later when you get an eviction notice from the new "owner".
What happens if you miss the deadline imposed by the statute of limitations? If you are late even by one day, you might be forever barred from relief on your claim.
I have a case going on now where my I am using the statute of limitation to my client's advantage. In 2007 my client, who I'll call Alice (not the client's real name) was sued by Beverly (not the plaintiff's real name). Beverly claimed that Alice took title to a house by fraud perpetrated against the former owner, who was Beverly's relative. We got the case dismissed because Alice was never properly served with a summons.
Beverly could have started a new lawsuit - this time taking care to ensure that her summons was properly served - any time up to six years after the statute of limitations started to run.
Giving Beverly the benefit of the doubt, let's say she wasted no time and filed her lawsuit in 2007 on the very day she discovered the alleged fraud. That day was August 14, 2007. So we'll give her six years from that date. That means she had to re-file her lawsuit by August 14, 2013.
For reasons we will never know, Beverly waited until July 9, 2014 to re-file her lawsuit. Unfortunately for Beverly - but very fortuitously for my client - Beverly was eleven months too late. So her case is going to get dismissed again, this time because she simply waited too long.
If Beverly had re-filed her case on Wednesday, August 14, 2013, she would have her day in court. On August 15th she would have been as out of luck as she is now, because the statute of limitations is strict, and judges have no authority or power to extend them by even a single day.
The statute of limitation is what we attorneys call an "affirmative defense". This means that a defendant has to make a point of it when answering the complaint. It does not apply automatically. You have to 'affirmatively" raise it as a defense. If a defendant does not raise the statute-of-limitation defense at the outset, the defense might be lost.
So, if you have a legal claim to make, don't wait! And if you are the one being sued, ask your attorney about using the statute of limitation as a defense.