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Is There a Deadline to Sue Someone?
Dear Senior Legal Line
I hired a contractor to paint my house in 2004. Almost from the beginning, I noticed problems. The paint started to peel off and he painted the windows shut. I have called him so many times that he stopped taking my telephone calls and will not respond to my letters. I want to sue him for the poor job he did, but some friends say that I may have waited too long to sue. Is there a deadline to sue someone?
Oh, dear. Your friends are correct. There are deadlines to meet when you wish to sue someone, and the deadline depends on the type of lawsuit. In law, this deadline is called the “statute of limitations”. In common terms, you can think of it as “you snooze, you lose”. If you or your property have been injured by someone, and you have discovered this injury, you have a duty to bring an action within the deadline, or statute of limitations.
In general, there is a six year statute of limitations. So, in a civil case, you generally have to sue the opposing party within six years from the time you discover the problem. Sometimes, however, the legislature has created shorter or longer statutes of limitations, depending on the type of claim. Sometimes a claim also has “statute of repose”. A statute of repose gives you a window of time to discover a problem, but the clock starts ticking from a specific event. In your case, the contractor did work on your home. A specific law says that from the date the contractor did the work on the home, you had ten years to discover a problem (this is the statute of repose). Once you discover the problem, you have two years to sue the contractor (this is the statute of limitations). See Minnesota Statutes Section 541.051. In your case, the work was done in 2004 and you discovered the problem in 2004. To satisfy the statute of repose, you had to discover the problem by 2014 (within the ten years of 2004). You did, but you then you had to sue the contractor by sometime in 2006, depending on the day and month you discovered the problem in 2004. Since it is now 2012, you failed to sue the contractor within two years of discovering the problem and the contractor has a defense to your lawsuit if you bring one now.
The contractor has to affirmatively raise the defense of statute of limitations. An affirmative defense is a legal argument that someone has to raise in their Answer to a lawsuit, or they may lose the opportunity to raise the argument at trial. Suppose you cross your fingers and hope that the contractor does not raise the defense in his Answer to your lawsuit – you still risk dismissal and costs to you. If the contractor raises this defense, the Court would likely grant a dismissal and if asked, may award the contractor his attorney’s fees and costs in defending your frivolous lawsuit. In other words, because you should have known that your claim was beyond the statute of limitations, you should have known not to start it, and now you have to pay the contractor money to pay for his costs in defending the lawsuit. Most likely you would have sued him in conciliation court because your damages are probably below $7500, so you might not have had a lawyer. The contractor might not have had a lawyer. But if he lost, he would probably go to a lawyer. The lawyer will tell him about conciliation court and district court. The contractor will find out that he can “remove” the case to district court and get another chance to raise his defense. This of course costs him attorneys fees, which his attorney will most likely ask the court to make you pay, which will probably be granted. Thus, before you sue anyone, you have to think of the potential consequences to you.
This may feel unfair, but statutes of limitation and repose have been created to bring finality to matters and to encourage potential plaintiffs to bring their actions while the evidence and people’s memories are fresh.
You may wish to contact your homeowner’s insurance company to see if paint is covered by your homeowners policy. If you need to repaint the house, and cannot afford to do so and homeowners insurance won’t pay for it, there are organizations that may be able to help, based on where you live. If you live in a city, a public housing authority may have a home rehabilitation loan or grant program to help fix up your house. In Duluth, two organizations may have such a program. The Housing and Redevelopment Program of Duluth has such a program if you meet the income eligibility guidelines and your home is at least 25 years old. If so, you may get a deferred loan to pay a reliable contractor to fix the home. The loan has a zero percent interest rate and repayments are not made if and until you sell the home or in 30 years. One Roof Community Housing serves the city of Duluth and surrounding communities with similar loans and grants, but currently their funding applications are pending so they probably do not have loans, but may in the future. If you live somewhere outside of Duluth, you have two places to call: the Arrowhead Economic Opportunity Agency, Inc, and the US Department of Agriculture Rural Development agency. They both have home repair and rehabilitation loans and grants. For more information on home rehabilitation loans and grants, contact:
▪ The Housing and Rehabilitation Authority of Duluth, MN (HRA), www.duluthhousing.com, 218-529-6300.
▪ Arrowhead Economic Opportunity Agency, Inc. (AEOA), www.aeoa.org, 800-662-5711.
▪ US Department of Agriculture, Rural Development (USDA), www.rurdev.usda.gov, (651) 602-7900.(state office) but each county has their own office.
Senior Legal Line is a legal question and answer line for Seniors.
The column is written by the Senior Citizens’ Law Project. It is not meant to give complete answers to individual questions. If you are 60 years of age or older and live within the Minnesota Arrowhead Region, you may contact the Legal Aid Service of Northeastern Minnesota with questions for legal help by writing to: Senior Citizens’ Law Project, Legal Aid Service of Northeastern Minnesota, 302 Ordean Bldg., Duluth, MN 55802. Please include a phone number and return address. To view previous articles, go to: www.lasnem.org. Reprints by permission only.