Switzerland – New law changes statute of limitations

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In 2020, an important revision of the Swiss statute of limitations enters into force. The new law provides for longer limitation periods in cases of personal injury and extends the relative limitation periods in tort and unjust enrichment law from one to three years.

Background of the revision

In June 2018, the Swiss parliament adopted an amendment to the Swiss Code of Obligations (“CO”) pertaining to a revision of the statute of limitations. In November 2018, the Swiss government decided that the revised statute of limitations shall enter into force on 1 January 2020.

The revision was significantly influenced by asbestos cases. Under the current law, damage claims of asbestos victims were time-barred in some cases even before asbestos-related diseases could be diagnosed. In March 2014, the European Court of Human Rights held in Howald Moor and others v. Switzerland that the Swiss statute of limitations amounts in such cases to a violation of article 6 paragraph 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights (right of access to a court).

Having said that, the revision does not only concern cases of personal injury, but also includes numerous other important changes as described in the following.

Key changes regarding limitation periods

A. Tort law

In tort law, the new relative limitation period amounts to three years from the date on which the injured party became aware of the damage and of the identity of the person liable (revised Art. 60 para. 1 CO). Under the current law, the relative limitation period amounts to one year only.

With the exception of cases of personal injury, the absolute limitation period remains ten years as from the date when the conduct that caused the damages occurred or ended (revised Art. 60 para. 1 CO).

In cases of personal injury, the new relative limitation period amounts to three years from the date on which the injured party became aware of the damage and of the identity of the person liable. Currently the relative limitation period amounts to one year only.

The new absolute limitation period in cases of personal injury amounts to twenty years after the date when the conduct which caused the damages occurred or ended (new Art. 60 para. 1bis CO). Under the current law, there was no special absolute limitation period for cases of personal injury, so that the ordinary 10-year period applied (Art. 60 para. 1 CO).

If conduct, which gives rise to liability under tort law, is also punishable under criminal law, the (longer) limitation period under criminal law remains applicable (cf. Art. 97 of the Swiss Criminal Code). However, where a first-instance criminal judgment is rendered before the conduct is time-barred under criminal law, the limitation periods ends not earlier than three years as from that criminal judgment (revised Art. 60 para. 2 CO). The current law does not provide for such an additional three-year limitation period.

B. Unjust enrichment law

In unjust enrichment law, the new relative limitation period amounts to three years as from the date on which the injured party knows about the claim (revised Art. 67 para. 1 CO). Under the current law, the relative limitation period amounts to one year only.

The absolute limitation period is not affected by the revision and remains ten years after the date on which the claim arises (revised Art. 67 para. 1 CO).

C. Contract law

With regard to contractual claims, the ordinary limitation period remains ten years from the due date (Art. 127 CO). Furthermore, the shorter limitation period of five years from the due date applicable to (amongst others) claims for rent, interest on capital and other periodic payments, (most) claims out of employment relationships etc. remains unchanged too (Art. 128 CO).

However, in cases of personal injury, the revised statute of limitations introduces a new relative limitation period of three years from the date on which the injured party became aware of the damage, as well as a new absolute limitation period of twenty years after the date when the conduct which caused the damages occurred or ended (new Art. 128a CO). The current law does not provide for distinct relative and absolute limitation periods for contractual claims in cases of personal injury. Instead, the ordinary ten-year limitation period (Art. 127 CO) usually applied to such cases.

D. Summary

In summary, the most important elements of the revised statute of limitations are the longer (trebled) relative limitation periods in tort and unjust enrichment law (i.e., three years instead of one year) and the new special rules for cases of personal injury, which now benefit from a 20-year absolute limitation period.

Transitional provisions / application of the revised statute of limitations to pre-existing claims

The longer limitation periods under the revised CO apply to any claims that are not yet time-barred when the revision enters into force (i.e., on 1 January 2020; revised Art. 49 para. 1, Final Title of the Swiss Civil Code). In other words, the limitation periods of any claims that do not become time-barred until 31 December 2019 at the latest will be prolonged. This is of particular relevance with regard to claims based on tort and unjust enrichment; the short one-year relative limitation periods under the current law will be extended by another two years.

In contrast, the current law remains applicable in case the revised statute of limitations provides for shorter limitation periods (revised Art. 49 para. 2, Final Title of the Swiss Civil Code). This concerns, in particular, contractual claims in cases of personal injury. The new three-year relative limitation period under the revised law might not apply to such claims, as the current statute of limitations does not provide for a relative limitation period at all.

Further changes brought by the revision

In addition to the changes of the limitation periods set out above, the revision of the statute of limitations contains numerous further modifications. Some of them are listed in the following:

  1. Limitation periods do not commence or are suspended in the event that a claim cannot be asserted for objective reasons before any court worldwide (revised Art. 134 para. 1 no. 6 CO). The current law provides for such non-commencement or suspension only if the claim cannot be brought before a Swiss
  2. Parties to a dispute may agree in writing that limitation periods shall be suspended during settlement discussions, mediation proceedings or other out-of-court settlement proceedings (revised Art. 134 para. 1 no. 8 CO).
  3. Once a limitation period has commenced to run, waivers of statute of limitation defenses are admissible, but must not exceed ten years (revised Art. 141 para. 1 CO). Any such waivers must be in writing (new Art. 141 para. 1bis CO).
  4. In general terms and conditions (“GTC”), statute of limitation defenses may be waived by the party who makes use of the GTCs only. In contrast, a waiver by the party on whom the GTCs are imposed (e.g., consumers) is ineffective (new Art. 141 para. 1bis CO).
  5. The limitation period for an actio pauliana under the Swiss Debt Enforcement and Bankruptcy Act (“DEBA”) is extended to from currently two years to three years after service of a loss certificate, the opening of bankruptcy proceedings or the confirmation of a composition agreement with an assignment of assets (whichever is applicable; revised Art. 292 DEBA).
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