The Statute of Limitations for Bringing Legal Action in Louisiana

A statute of limitations lays out a period of time for bringing a certain kind of legal action. In Louisiana, the statute of limitations is known as “liberative prescription,” which is defined in Louisiana Civil Code article 3447 as “a mode of barring of action as a result of inaction for a period of time.” La. C.C. art. 3447. There are liberative prescriptive periods, or statutes of limitations, of one year, two years, three years, five years, ten years, and thirty years.

Prescriptive Periods

The one-year prescriptive period applies to “delictual” (or, tort) actions and actions regarding damage to immovable property. La. C.C. arts. 3492-93. The two-year prescriptive period applies to delictual actions which arise from a crime of violence. La. C.C. art. 3493.10. The three-year prescriptive period is applicable to actions involving issues such as recovery of compensation for services rendered or money lent. La. C.C. art. 3494. Actions that are subject to the five-year prescriptive period include actions such as annulment of a testament, reduction of an excessive donation, and rescission of a partition. La. C.C. art. 3497. There are four actions which are subject to the ten-year prescriptive period: personal actions, actions against contractors and architects, revival of money judgments, and actions for arrearages of child support. La. C.C. arts. 3499-3501.1. Finally, the thirty-year prescriptive period applies to actions for the recognition of a right of inheritance. La. C.C. art. 3502.

Interruption of Prescription

Under Louisiana law, a prescriptive period can be interrupted. One way in which prescription can be interrupted is by the filing of a suit or service of process. La. C.C. art. 3462. Prescription is interrupted when one party commences an action against another party “in a court of competent jurisdiction and venue.” Id. This mode of interruption was recently discussed by the Louisiana Supreme Court in Kling v. Hebert, as detailed below.

In Kling v. Hebert, 378 So.3d 54 (La. 01/26/24), the plaintiff filed suit in state court for a violation of his right to free expression under the Louisiana Constitution. He was awarded compensatory damages and lost wages by a jury, but the appellate court reversed the lost wages award. The plaintiff then filed a writ application to the Louisiana Supreme Court. While this writ application was pending, he filed a complaint in federal court, alleging violations of the First and Fourteenth Amendments under the United States Constitution. The defendant argued that the plaintiff’s claims were prescribed, as it had been eight years since the violation of free speech had occurred, and the claim was subject to a one-year prescriptive period. The federal district court held that the plaintiff’s federal claim had prescribed, and the appellate court issued the following question to the Louisiana Supreme Court:

In Louisiana, under what circumstances, if any, does the commencement of a suit in a court of competent jurisdiction and venue interrupt prescription as to the causes of action, understood as legal claims rather than the facts giving rise to them, not asserted in that suit?

The plaintiff urged the Court to use a broad interpretation of prescription, where interruption is effective as to all causes that arise out of the same “operative facts,” while the defendant argued that a narrower approach was better, which would require that the actions in the two lawsuits be the same. The Court held that an interpretation that was a balance of the two was the best option, as shown below.

To answer the above question, the Louisiana Supreme Court used Louisiana Civil Code article 3462, which states that “[p]rescription is interrupted … when the obligee commences action against the obligor, in a court of competent jurisdiction and venue.” The Court went on to say that “[p]rescription is interrupted when notice is sufficient to fully apprise the defendant of the nature of the claim of the plaintiff, and what is demanded of the defendant.”

The Court found that a broad interpretation would risk potential abuse of the system, as a plaintiff could choose to withhold claims in order to circumvent prescription statutes or avoid res judicata. The Court also said that a narrow interpretation could risk “penalizing pleading mistakes and inartful phraseology;” i.e., it could inadvertently punish pro se plaintiffs.

Thus, the Court ruled that the essence of prescription by lawsuit is notice to the defendant of the legal proceedings, and that the “underlying reason why prescription does not bar a subsequent claim is that the defendant has adequate and timely notice” of liability arising out of a factual occurrence. Therefore, prescription can only be interrupted when the defendant “knows or should know” and is fully apprised of the nature of the claim and what is being demanded of the defendant.

Limitation of Prescription Via Agreement

Another issue that has recently been handled by the Louisiana Supreme Court is whether a prescription period can be limited by agreement of the parties. In Wilson v. La. Citizens Prop. Ins. Corp., 375 So.3d 961 (La. 01/10/24), the plaintiff filed suit in January 2023 against her insurer, claiming that the insurer had failed to tender payment to her for losses occurring in August 2020 and October 2020. The plaintiff claimed that the insurer’s bad faith actions constituted breach of contract, which is subject to a ten-year prescriptive period.

The insurer filed an exception of prescription, claiming that the plaintiff’s action was brought in violation of its policy, which stated that “no action can be brought unless the policy provisions have been complied with and the action is started within two years after the date of loss.” In determining whether the policy’s provision was valid, the Louisiana Supreme Court looked to La. R.S. 22:868(B), which provides that no policy “shall contain any condition, stipulation, or agreement limiting right of action against the insurer to a period of less than twenty-four months” from the date of loss. Additionally, in a prior opinion, the Court had ruled that “in the absence of a statutory prohibition, a clause in an insurance policy fixing a reasonable time to institute suit is valid.” Therefore, since there was no statutory prohibit restricting an insurer from adding a two-year limitation into its policy, and the two-year limitation was consistent with La. R.S. 22:868(B), the limitation on prescription was valid, and the plaintiff’s claim had prescribed, as it had been brought more than two years after the dates of loss.

Conclusion

Under Louisiana law, prescription is a way to limit a person’s right to bring legal action by putting a time period on that right. A prescriptive period can be interrupted by the filing of a lawsuit if the defendant is given sufficient notice of the suit. A prescriptive period can also be limited by contract so long as there is no statutory provision that prohibits such a limitation, and so long as the limitation does not violate another Louisiana rule of law.