Understanding Pennsylvania’s Exception: No Statute of Limitations on Governmental Agency Claims

by | Jun 4, 2024 | Government / Municipal |

Understanding Pennsylvania’s Exception: No Statute of Limitations on Governmental Agency Claims

In legal matters, the statute of limitations serves as a crucial time limit within which legal proceedings must be initiated. Once this timeframe elapses, individuals lose the right to pursue legal action. However, in Pennsylvania, there exists a significant exception to this rule concerning governmental agencies.

Understanding the Exception

Unlike in many other jurisdictions, Pennsylvania has adopted a legal doctrine, nullen tempus occurit regi (“time does not run against the king”), that exempts governmental agencies from statute of limitations defenses. This means that even if the statute of limitations period has expired, individuals can still bring legal claims against governmental bodies within the state.

Historical Context

Nullen tempus occurit regi has long been accepted in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Commonwealth, Department of Transportation v. J.W. Bishop & Co., 497 Pa. 58, 62, 439 A.2d 101, 103 (1981) (collecting cases). Interesting this doctrine applied to both legal and equitable causes.

Rationale Behind the Exception

When the Commonwealth or its agencies invoke the doctrine of nullum tempus, it “seeks to vindicate public rights and protect public property.” Commonwealth, Department of Transportation v. Rockland Construction Co., 498 Pa. 531, 535, 448 A.2d 1047, 1049 (1982);  Stroudsburg Area School Dist. v. R.K.R. Associates/Architects, 417 Pa.Super. 85 (1992)

In Stroudsburg Area School Dist., the Superior Court found that Stroudsburg Area School District could properly assert the doctrine of nullum tempus occurrit regi to defeat the applicable statute of limitations in an action against various architects and general contractors based upon their alleged failure to adequately design, supervise and provide specifications and safe and suitable materials for the construction of one of the exterior walls of one of the district’s school buildings. In light of the police power of the subordinate governmental entity involved in that matter, the Superior Court applied this doctrine to vitiate the normal statute of limitations issues. This

The rationale behind this exception lies in the unique nature of governmental agencies and their responsibilities. Government entities often hold significant power and resources, and they are tasked with fulfilling crucial public functions. Therefore, it is deemed essential that governments have the ability to revisit the actions of prior administrations to make sure that rights of the government in its position as trustee for the public are not abandoned due to political whim or malfeasance.

Implications for Litigants

For governmental agencies in Pennsylvania seeking to pursue right once thought abandoned, this exception can be advantageous. On one hand, it ensures that justice can be pursued, even if significant time has passed since the alleged harm occurred.

Navigating the Legal Landscape

Navigating the legal landscape concerning statute of limitations and governmental agencies in Pennsylvania requires a nuanced understanding of both state law and relevant precedents. Legal professionals must carefully assess the specific circumstances of each case to determine the applicability of this exception and develop effective legal strategies accordingly.

Conclusion

Pennsylvania’s exception to the statute of limitations for governmental agencies underscores the state’s commitment to accountability and justice and protection of public interests in good government. As such, it remains an important aspect of the state’s legal framework, shaping the landscape of civil litigation in Pennsylvania when a governmental body seeks to either declare that a contract was entered into ultra vires (without authority) or to pursue payments of fees that governmental collectors failed to collect by negligence and/or design.

 

 

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