The efforts necessary to slow the spread of COVID-19, namely the barring of even small social gatherings, let alone large ones open to the public, have widespread effects on people’s legal rights. One such impact relates to the statutes of limitations that determine the operative time windows within which a legal action or criminal prosecution may be brought, as many causes of action and/or criminal prosecutions will be barred by such statutes if not brought over the coming months while the pandemic emergency persists, and during that time it may be difficult if not impossible for would-be plaintiffs to meet with an attorney to prepare and file a complaint and for prosecutors to present evidence to a grand jury and bring indictments.
Statutes of limitations exist for a number of reasons, such as ensuring that the evidence relating to a given grievance or crime is relatively “fresh” at the time of a possible trial, as well as eventually providing potential defendants repose and allow them to move on from a past error or misdeed. Because of these important justifications, courts generally refuse to relax these limitations requirements unless failure to do so would work an injustice, such as where the possible plaintiff or victim did not discover harm or the identity of the person(s) responsible within the limitations period due to the wrongdoer’s efforts to conceal. In such cases, the “discovery rule” allows courts to “toll” the applicable statute of limitations until the point at which the plaintiff did learn or reasonably should have learned of their cause of action.
But those “injustice” considerations do not so strongly obtain where would-be plaintiffs or prosecuting authorities have known of their claims or criminal accusations but have simply decided to wait until the 11th hour to initiate legal proceedings, only to have those delayed plans frustrated by disaster or another unforeseen obstacle, such as the global COVID-19 pandemic. In all likelihood, absent new legislation specifically extending these limitations periods, courts may have little choice but to say “tough luck” to parties whose dilatoriness in prosecuting known claims resulted in applicable limitations periods lapsing during this period of widespread disruption.
Unsurprisingly, such legislation is already being talked about. Politico has reported that the Department of Justice has reached out to Congress during this time of emergency, asking it to pass legislation that, among other things, would extend the limitations periods relating to criminal offenses throughout and even for a year beyond the COVID-19 emergency. If the period of disruption persists as long as is predicted, it can reasonably be expected that such legislation will be considered by both federal and state legislatures.
In order to continue providing both current and prospective clients the sort of expert counsel they need, we will be monitoring both federal and state legislative developments as they relate to statutes of limitations and other issues affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.