Defamation & the Statute of Limitations

You have likely heard the term “statute of limitations” before. And while it’s an important legal principle (and literal statute), it is frequently used colloquially to refer to how long one has to do something. And that’s precisely what the statute of limitations is in legal terms, too. It is a statute that outlines exactly how long one has to bring a claim in court.

The statute of limitations varies for various types of legal claims. For example, with some criminal cases, the State might have two years to file charges against a criminal defendant; with other criminal cases, charges can be filed at any time – meaning there is no statute of limitations for certain crimes.

The same variability is true of civil claims. Some claims have a statute of limitations as short as six months (for example, claims against a ‘tax collector’). Others have a statute of limitations of up to six years (for example, a claim for breach of contract – where the contract is in writing).

Defamation has a statute of limitations of only one year.

That’s right – if you believe you have been defamed by someone, you only have one year to bring that claim.

But what does it mean to have a one-year statute of limitations? For example, when does it start? And at what point have you successfully brought a claim within that one year?

For a defamation claim, the statute of limitations will be said to have started running at the time of the defamatory act. For example: let’s imagine that on January 25th, 2022 Dwayne “the Defendant” Johnson told a group of professional acquaintances that you stole money from your clients. If you intend to sue Dwayne for defamation, you would typically have until midnight on January 24, 2023 to sue him.

What if he told multiple lies about you, harming your reputation? Let’s say he told lies on January 4, 8, 19, and 25, all in 2022. If you intended to sue him for all of those lies, you would have to sue him based on the earliest one (January 4, 2022). Why? Because if you sued him on January 24, 2023 it will have been more than one year since he committed the acts of January 4, 8, and 19 of 2022. Any lawsuit for those acts will be barred by the statute of limitations.

It’s important to recognize that, with defamatory acts, each statement–or lie–is its own separate act. The statements of January 4, 8, 19, and 25 of 2022 are not all one continuous act by Dwayne. Each one would technically have its own statute of limitations (though, if you sued him for all of those dates, you would normally be expected or required to include all acts within the same lawsuit).

If you did not become aware of Dwayne’s statements, let’s say, until April 5th of 2022, you may be able to argue that the statute of limitations should run until April of 2023, as you did not have knowledge of the defamatory acts until months after they were made. As a rule, though, statutes of limitations for defamation claims begin running from the date the defamatory statements were made.

Often, these days, it’s pretty easy to determine when a statute of limitations should start because most claims for defamation arise from things posted on the internet. That is, since Facebook posts are date- and time-stamped, it’s pretty obvious when the statute of limitations starts and stops.

So what do you have to do to successfully meet a statute of limitations? On paper, it’s quite simple: You must file your complaint with the appropriate court before the statute of limitations runs out.

In practice, this may be more complicated than it seems. Why? Because doing the necessary research and drafting a solid legal complaint takes time. A one-year statute of limitations is short. It does not leave a lot of time to waste.

This is all the more reason to call Hepworth Legal sooner, rather than later, if you think you have been defamed. We can act fast to get your case off and running.