Document Type


Publication Date



One hundred years ago, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. asked, "What is the justification for depriving a man of his rights, a pure evil as far as it goes, in consequence of the lapse of time?" A century later, we are still searching for a satisfactory answer to that question. The purpose of this Article is to press that inquiry further.

The law of limitation of actions is the set of legislatively and judicially created legal rules-including the classification of claims, the duration of limitation periods, the applicable principles of accrual and tolling, and the like-that determine whether a claim is time-barred? With few exceptions, the policies on which limitation of actions is based rarely have been the object of serious study. This lack of attention is surprising. Statutes of limitation are an important feature of the legal landscape. Virtually every country has them. Their direct antecedents can be traced back for centuries, and some sorts of time limits have been enforced for thousands of years. Today, they are ubiquitous; California alone has thousands of them.

The limitation system is the product of the interplay between two competing sets of policies: those supporting the extinguishment of untimely claims and those encouraging the resolution of all claims, whether timely or untimely, on their substantive merits. A thorough understanding of both sets of policies is valuable for all participants in the legal system. When uncertainty exists about which limitation rule is applicable or when the applicable rule is unclear, advocates who want to make the strongest possible argument ought to have both sets of policies in mind. So, too, should judges who are called upon to apply, and in some instances to create, the rules of the limitation system in deciding particular cases. Finally, legislators designing or modifying a limitation system need to consider these policies to ensure that their legislative choices are sensible ones. This Article describes the two sets of policies and explores their implications.


To view the content in your browser, please download Adobe Reader or, alternately,
you may Download the file to your hard drive.

NOTE: The latest versions of Adobe Reader do not support viewing PDF files within Firefox on Mac OS and if you are using a modern (Intel) Mac, there is no official plugin for viewing PDF files within the browser window.