What is a Statute of Limitations?
A statute of limitations (SOL) is a legally-defined period of time during which a criminal or civil
legal action can be initiated against a person or entity alleged to have committed a crime or
engaged in wrongdoing. With few exceptions, a legal action (criminal charges or a lawsuit) can
no longer be initiated once that period of time has ended.
How are Statutes of Limitations determined?
SOLs are determined by state legislatures and codified in state law. Each state’s SOLs are
unique to that state. SOLs also differ between criminal law and civil law in each state.
Is there a federal SOL, and if so, does it override state SOLs?
There are federal SOLs that are applied to federal criminal and civil law. Generally speaking, if
a crime or wrongdoing occurred solely within a particular state, then that state’s SOLs apply. If
the crime or wrongdoing occurred in multiple states, or was multi-state or national in scope,
then federal SOLs apply.
Are there ever any exceptions to SOLs?
Yes, although these exceptions are also codified in state and federal law. For example, in some
states, the SOL is extended in cases where the discovery of a crime or an injury did not occur
until after the original SOL for that crime or injury has passed. And in some states, the SOL for
bringing a civil case against someone for child abuse is extended for a period of time after the
survivor has turned 18.
What is a “lookback window”?
A lookback window is a temporary period of time during which the SOL to bring legal action
against someone is paused. For example, let’s say a particular state’s law allows for a survivor
of child sexual abuse to sue their abuser up to 3 years after the survivor turns 18. A survivor in that state who is currently older than 21 would not be able to sue their abuser because that 3-year
window has closed for them. If, however, that same state initiated a “lookback window,” then
survivors who are older than 21 now have a temporary period of time in which they can pursue a
lawsuit against their abuser. A lookback window is typically a one-time opportunity for survivors to
pursue civil action, and is typically implemented in response to high-profile cases of child abuse
that involve multiple survivors over several years. Once the lookback window has closed, civil
legal options revert back to the state’s regular SOLs. It’s important to note that where lookback
windows are implemented, there may be restrictions associated with them (for example, a survivor
could sue a person but not an institution).
I live in a different state from where I was abused. What SOL applies in my case?
The SOL that applies to your case is determined by where the abuse occurred, not where you or
your abuser are currently living.
Can an SOL be extended further or removed entirely?
Yes, but only through the particular state’s legislative process or state constitutional amendment
process. These processes are defined by each state.
Please note: The law is far more complex than what is described here, and there are numerous
factors that go into determining what the options are in your state and in your specific
circumstances. If you are interested in learning more about your rights and your options, please
consult with an attorney who is experienced in handling child sexual abuse litigation.