Nursing home abuse cases sometimes fall under criminal law where there is an act of violence such as a physical or sexual assault. Criminal prosecutions can also take place in wrongful death cases in nursing homes where it can be shown an act of gross negligence took place that caused the death.
Every American state is responsible for enforcing their criminal law, or what’s called the penal code. In cases of serious intentional or negligent injury or death, most U.S. states have no set legal period of time or statutory limitation from the time the offense occurred or was discovered, to the time a charge is laid and the matter proceeds through the court system.
Civil law cases are a different matter. Lawsuits filed under civil law such as nursing home abuse and neglect cases that do not meet the criminal act threshold are restricted in the time frame that an action can be launched. This varies from state to state from as little as 1 year in Tennessee to a maximum of 6 years in Maine and North Dakota. Most states set their statute of limitations between 2 and 3 years.
Once the statute of limitations has expired, there is no possibility of filing a lawsuit in nursing home abuse cases. This may seem harsh in severe cases of abuse and neglect, but there is a purpose for the statute of limitations that has long been held by courts of law.
Purpose of the Statute of Limitations in Civil Law
The intention of limiting when legal action can be commenced is to facilitate “reasonableness”. The courts look at a test of what is reasonable for a lawsuit to get going and balances this period between a test of fairness to both the plaintiff and the defendant.
In fairness to the plaintiff, there obviously has to be some time allowed to discover the abuse or neglect, establish the facts, attempt to remedy the situation and then to obtain legal advice before filing a claim.
In fairness to the defendant, allowing too long a time period would put them at an unfair disadvantage in defending themselves. The main reasons that a delay in time would adversely affect a defendant include:
- Witnesses can no longer be located
- Witness recollection fades
- Evidence disappears
Additionally, courts have long protected a defendant from malicious and/or tardy legal action. Courts take the view that:
- Plaintiffs with a valid cause should pursue it with due diligence
- Defendants are unable to disprove a stale claim
- A long-dormant claim has “more cruelty than justice”
The “more cruelty than justice” philosophy dates back to Greek democracy where they first limited legal actions whether instigated by the state or by individuals. In Classical Athens, Demosthenes wrote that statutory limitations were necessary to control “sycophants” who were professional accusers and the predecessors of today’s lawyers.
While every state has legal statutes of limitations that deal specifically with nursing home abuse cases, it’s important to know that the statutes themselves have limitations and exceptions to the rule of law.
Exceptions to the Statute of Limitations
This, of course, varies from state to state and needs to be carefully examined by a competent lawyer in that jurisdiction in order to apply an exception to the statute of limitations in a nursing home abuse lawsuit claim.
Predominantly, these exceptions apply:
- Where the plaintiff had a mental or physical incapacity following the injury or abuse and was not able to file a claim.
- Where the injury resulting from the abuse did not manifest until a later time. Here the statute of limitation period will apply from the time the plaintiff first knew or ought to have known about the injury results.
- Where there is intentional misrepresentation or fraudulent concealment on the part of the defendant.
Many jurisdictions suspend or “toll” the limitation period from the time of the abuse until the start of an action. This might apply where the plaintiff is a minor or in the case where the defendant has filed for bankruptcy and the financial matter must be resolved.
Further, in certain states enforcement of the statute of limitations may be waived by either party if they feel it is in their interest to do so. This must be approved by the court. In all other cases, if the civil action is not commenced within the prescribed statute of limitation period, the plaintiff has no recourse including an appeal to a higher court.
Therefore, it is entirely in the plaintiff’s interest to deal with a nursing home abuse case at their earliest opportunity.
Statute of Limitation Periods by State
Nursing home abuse cases have specific statutes of limitations set out by their state of jurisdiction. They range from as short as 1 year to as long as 6 years. Here are the limitation periods in each of the fifty states that a plaintiff has to file a claim and start a civil action.
1 Year Limitation
Kentucky, Louisiana, Tennessee
2 Year Limitation
Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia
3 Year Limitation
Arkansas, District of Columbia, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin
4 Year Limitation
Florida, Nebraska, Utah, Wyoming
5 Year Limitation
6 Year Limitation
Maine, North Dakota
Exceptions for Governments as Defendants
Some states have special protection within their statute of limitations that protect government-run nursing homes from being sued more than 1 year after the incident took place. This is an issue that should be discussed with a lawyer if a government-sponsored nursing home is involved in an abuse or neglect claim.