A statute of limitations is a deadline for filing a legal action, and it's a deadline you don't want to miss. California does not have just one statute of limitations, but different limitations periods that apply to different types of cases. California's personal injury statute of limitations, at only two years, is among the shorter limitation periods. If you miss it, you may not be able to file your lawsuit.
Statute of Limitations
Statutes of limitations impose a specific limit on the period of time an injured party has to bring a lawsuit. This may seem artificial and restrictive, but if you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. A legal universe without statutes of limitations would end in chaos.
Think of the first car accident you ever were involved in – maybe that fender-bender when you were a teen that definitely wasn't your fault. What if the other driver were to sue you today, a decade or two after the fact? Finding evidence and witnesses would be a big problem.
The idea behind statutes of limitations is to encourage people to bring lawsuits close to the time of the injury, while evidence and witness recollections are still fresh. And it also offers a kind of closure. At some point after an incident, you should feel comfortable that the door is closed forever on the possibility of a lawsuit.
Personal Injury Cases
When you have been injured in California, you can bring a tort lawsuit against the party that caused the harm. You'll have to prove that the other party acted negligently, recklessly or intentionally, and that this wrongful behavior caused your injuries.
This kind of litigation is often called a personal injury action. Personal injury claims are almost always included in cases involving automobile accidents, premises liability and slip-and-fall incidents in California.
Typical personal injury damages include medical bills and lost wages, both of which are relatively easy to calculate. Other possible elements of damages in personal injury cases in California are pain and suffering and, in some cases, diminished quality of life. It is more difficult to put a dollar amount on compensation for these damages.
Read More: What Is the Average Personal Injury Settlement?
Personal Injury Statute of Limitations
The statute of limitations in California for bringing an action for personal injuries is found in California Code of Civil Procedure Section 335.1. That statute provides that any action for assault, battery, injury to a person or the death of a person must be brought within two years.
That means that a person who is injured usually has two years to sue the party whose negligence or wrongful conduct caused the damages. This two-year period generally starts to run the day you are injured. However, there are exceptions to this rule.
Effect of Late Discovery on Limitations
Sometimes the existence of an injury isn't apparent immediately after the incident or accident. For example, this might happen if the injured person suffered a blow to the head in an auto accident, and it results in brain damage some years later.
If this happens, California provides an alternative limitations period. If an injury was not discovered, and could not reasonably have been discovered, until some later date, the injured person has one year from the time of discovery to file a case.
Tolling of the Statute
In some cases, a statute of limitations in California is suspended for a period of time. This tolling happens when the injured person can't file suit because the person at fault is a minor, in prison, out of state or insane.
In any of these circumstances, the statute of limitations is tolled until the condition changes. At that point, the time limit begins to run once again. For example, if the statute is tolled because the person at fault leaves the state, it will start running again when the person returns to the state.
Shorter Limitation Periods if Suing a Government for Injury
Under the California Tort Claims Act, you can sue a government agency for personal injuries caused by their employees acting within the scope of their duties. But there are a few more hoops to jump through.
One is relevant here: the timing is much shorter than the regular limitations period for torts when you are suing a government agency. You must file an administrative claim with the agency generally within six months from the time of the incident.
Teo Spengler earned a JD from U.C. Berkeley Law School. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an MA and an MFA in English/writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.