A statute of limitations is a deadline, after which you can no longer start a court case.
For instance, the statute of limitations for personal injury cases in California is two years from the date on which the injury occurs. If the person doesn’t realize they’ve been hurt right away, then they instead get one year after they discover that injury. This could be longer than two years after it happened.
But if you’re seeking legal counsel, as this is your first time through the court system, you may expect that your lawyer will know what the statute of limitations is for your case. If they tell you the wrong date, could that make it impossible for you to start a case? Would your lawyer then be liable for the fact that you weren’t even allowed to proceed with an otherwise winnable case?
How this could happen
For an example of how this could occur, consider the statute of limitations for the breach of a written contract. In California, the person who was harmed by that breach would have four years to start a court case.
But for an oral contract, the statute of limitations is just two years. So if you approach a lawyer about that contractual breach, and they tell you that you have more time than you actually do, you may not file the paperwork in time.
Say that it has been almost two years since the contract issue. Your lawyer reads the wrong statute of limitations and tells you there is no rush because you have four years in total. The reality, though, is that you are almost at that two-year limit already, so any delay could make your case impossible.
In a situation like this, you may claim that it is legal malpractice because your lawyer was negligent. If so, then you need to know about the next steps to take.