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When do German claims become statute barred?

Limitation periods (in German: Verjährungsfristen) impose time limits within which a party must bring a claim, or give notice of a claim to the other party. They are imposed by statute, primarily sections 194 to 218 German Civil Code (Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch, BGB). The standard limitation period is three years (section 195 BGB), thus significantly shorter than limitation according to English law. For many constellations there are – of course – exceptions to this standard limitation period: German law knows limitation periods ranging from two weeks up to 30 years. For an overview see German Wikipedia.

If the limitation period has already expired, the claim will be “statute barred” (Anspruch ist verjährt) and the defendant will be able to plead the defence of limitation (Einrede der Verjährung).

When does the clock begin to tick?

According to section 199 BGB,  “unless another commencement of limitation is determined, the standard limitation period commences at the end of the year in which: (i) the claim arose and (ii) the obligee obtains knowledge of the circumstances giving rise to the claim and of the identity of the obligor, or would have obtained such knowledge if he had not shown gross negligence”.

Due to the “end of the year-rule” the standard limitation period can – in fact – be almost four years. If, for example, you slap some German in the face on 1 January 2013, that person can wait until 31 December 2016 to sue you, because the limitation commences at the end of 2013 and runs for three years.

How to stop the clock?

To avoid the claim become statute barred the claimant must either initiate court proceedings (see details here) or he must get written confirmation by the other party that the other party will not plead the defence of limitation (so called “Verzicht auf Verjährungseinrede”). If claimant has missed this there is still a chance to argue that the parties had already started to negotiate the claim (see section 203 BGB), but this is thin ice, especially if there is no correspondence to prove such serious negotiations.

For more on civil litigation and evidence rules in German Courts of law and before German arbitration tribunals:

Download your free Guide to Civil Litigation in Germany (UK version)

For the US version of the Guide please go here:

GrafLegal Guide to German Civil Litigation (USA version)

Visit our expert blog on German litigation for much more information

The law firm Graf & Partners was established in 2003 and has many years of experience with British-German and US-German legal matters.The Anglo-German litigation lawyer team of  Graf Legal is well equipped to advise and represent clients from the UK and other English speaking countries. If you wish us to advise or represent you in a German or cross border case, or if you need an expert report on German law, please contact German lawyer Bernhard Schmeilzl, LL.M. (Leicester), managing partner and head of the litigation department. Bernhard is also frequently asked by British and US Courts and Tribunals or by legal counsels to provide expert reports and legal opinions on German law.