From Strictly Legal section of How You Can Avoid Legal Land Mines by Joseph S. Lyles (2003)
Our legal system developed from the legal system of England, which came across the Atlantic with the colonists from the British Isles. Much of the law was case law (also called common law) which was derived from written decisions of judges in case after case. One legal doctrine developed by the judges was called laches. This doctrine was based on the principle that someone should act within a reasonable period of time to exercise their legal rights. It is held unfair to let someone claiming to have suffered a legal wrong to wait many years before pressing a claim in the courts. The passage of time makes it more difficult for someone who has been sued to prepare and present a defense.
Now most of the time limits on filing legal claims are set forth in statutes, regulations or other written rules. Unfortunately, the time limits vary from law to law, state to state, civil to criminal law, contract to contract, etc.
Any right or remedy created by a legal rule or a law is going to be subject to time limitations.
For example, victims of sexual discrimination at work must complain to the appropriate government agency within a certain period of time or they will never be able to pursue a claim for damages against the perpetrator. Under some laws contracts are able to specify time limits for complaints or appeals. Yet other laws contain time limits that cannot be shortened by the terms of a contract. For example, the language of health benefit plans may prescribe limits for denial of claims, yet the language in automobile liability policies which attempts to shorten the time limit for filing lawsuits for the benefits is usually unenforceable.
The key to navigating around all these time limits is to be prompt in reporting any injuries or wrongs you suffer. For instance, if you are hurt on the job, be sure to report it to your supervisor as soon as possible. If there is a change of status that could affect your contract or statutory rights, report it to the cognizant authority as soon as possible. For example, if your 22-year old child drops out of college and becomes ineligible for coverage under your health insurance policy, you must report that change to your company soon in order to preserve your rights to purchase an individual policy for him under the federal law known as COBRA.
Some time limits created by laws or regulations may help you. For example, there are time limits for health benefit plans to process your claims set by the Department of Labor regulations. The website of the appropriate governmental agency is a good place to look for time limits that may apply to your case (see Appendix G).
The Lesson: If an incident in your life seems to have potential legal implications, find out what the limits are on your ability to start remedial or protective action, and on the abilities of others to make claims against you.