In Wisconsin, as in every state, if you've had your property damaged as a result of someone else's careless or intentional action, you might be thinking about filing a civil lawsuit over the incident. If so, it's important to understand the statute of limitations and how it applies to your potential case.
By way of background, a "statute of limitations" is a state law that (as the term suggests) limits your right to have a civil court consider your lawsuit, by setting a strictly-enforced deadline for getting the case started. Miss the deadline, and you effectively lose the right to bring your case to court. Every state has passed these kinds of laws, with time limits that vary depending on the kind of case being filed.
In this article, we'll explain the statute of limitations that applies to property damage lawsuits in Wisconsin, the potential consequences of missing the deadline, and a few rare circumstances in which you might be able to extend the time limit.
In Wisconsin, the statute of limitations that will apply to a lawsuit for property damage depends on whether a motor vehicle accident led to the alleged damage.
First off, Wisconsin Statutes section 893.52 sets a six-year deadline for the filing of any lawsuit "to recover damages for an injury to real or personal property." Here, "real" property means a house, some other building, or physical land. Personal property includes things like equipment, jewelry, clothing, electronics, and most anything else that's not deemed "real property."
But section 893.52 also says that if the property damage is caused by "an accident involving a motor vehicle," then a three-year filing deadline applies.
So, a three-year deadline would apply to a lawsuit over vehicle damage caused by a car accident, and also to a lawsuit by a property owner whose house was struck by a vehicle. But a six-year filing deadline applies to a lawsuit filed by a homeowner claiming that physical damage to the exterior of her house was caused by a neighbor's negligence in allowing a dead tree to fall.
Whichever deadline applies, the "clock" typically starts running on the day of the incident that led to the damage, although, in an attempt to push the filing deadline back, the property owner could argue that the damage -- or the cause of the damage -- could not reasonably have been discovered right away.
At this point you might be wondering what will happen if you try to file your Wisconsin property damage lawsuit after the applicable time limit has passed. In that situation, you can count on the defendant (the person you're trying to sue) filing a motion with the court, asking that the case be dismissed. And the court is certain to grant the dismissal unless rare circumstances make an extension of the deadline appropriate (more on these rules in the next section). So it's crucial to pay attention to (and comply with) the Wisconsin statute of limitations for property damage cases, even if you're fairly certain you'll be able to resolve the situation without resorting to a lawsuit.
For most kinds of lawsuits in Wisconsin, including civil cases over property damage, a number of situations could serve to extend the lawsuit filing deadline set by the statute of limitations.
For example, special rules usually apply if, at the time the property damage occurs, the property owner is:
In those situations, the property owner is considered under a "legal disability" according to Wisconsin Statutes section 893.16. Once the property owner turns 18, or is declared sane, he or she will have two years to get the lawsuit filed. But note that section 893.16 explicitly states that an extension for mental illness cannot be granted if more than five years have passed since the underlying property damage occurred. And by virtue of the statute's wording, the extension for minors will effectively expire on the property owner's 20th birthday.
Another potential exception to strict application of the statute of limitations deadline exists when the defendant (the person who is alleged to have caused the property damage) "departs from and resides out of" the state of Wisconsin before the lawsuit can be filed. In that situation, the period of absence probably won't be counted as part of the three or six-year time period. This rule can be found at Wisconsin Statutes section 893.19.
Other circumstances may affect the Wisconsin statute of limitations, and how the time window is calculated. If you have questions about the statute of limitations as it applies to your potential property damage lawsuit, an experienced Wisconsin attorney will have the answers. Learn more about Finding an Excellent Lawyer.