A statute of limitations is a law that varies by state or other jurisdiction, and it limits the time in which a person may bring an action. There are limitations on when the government can bring most criminal actions, with the exception being homicide. Similarly, there are limitations for when the parties to a civil dispute can go to court to resolve the dispute.
There are several important reasons for these limitations. Primarily, the reasons have to do with fairness and equal opportunity to collect and preserve evidence. Obviously, when evidence—in the form of testimony, photos, documents, or otherwise—is gathered close in time to an event, it is more reliable and probative as to what happened at the time the event occurred.
Our justice system is set up as an adversarial model, meaning each side gets to present its case. As a result, it makes sense that both sides should have equal access to the evidence in the case. Also, it is not fair for the party defending against the allegations, in terms of planning for the future, to have an event hanging over their head forever.
Because we are personal injury attorneys, let's talk about a scenario that might come up in a Washington personal injury case or an Oregon personal injury case: a person drives negligently, rear-ending another. They exchange information, and go about their lives. The person who was hit was injured, seeks treatment, and ultimately heals within about a year. One and a half years after the collision, the person who was at-fault gets a job opportunity across the country, accepts it, and moves. Three years after that, the at-fault person gets another opportunity, bringing him back to the Pacific Northwest. Six months later—five years after the wreck—the injured party sues the negligent driver.
Imagine being that person, with only a vague recollection of the events. Imagine being the injured person, whose medical providers may have little to no memory of the treatment. Imagine being the attorneys trying to work on the case, to find witnesses to help either way, reviewing old evidence and chasing down friends and family who are long gone. Imagine being the insurance company, who would have to keep claims open forever, without the ability to know when, quite literally, it could cut its losses off the books.
In short, legislatures around the country have to balance the interests of allowing a person to allow their case to develop against pursuing it diligently, while simultaneously holding wrongdoers accountable with reasonable limitation, and insurance companies, attorneys, and society to operate under basic and easy-to-follow deadlines. In Washington a personal injury case has a three year statute of limitations under most circumstances. Similarly, Oregon personal injury cases generally have a two year limitation period. There are some nuanced exceptions and reasons that time period can be extended, but it is often a risky proposition to bring a claim after the statute of limitations has expired.