If your car or motorcycle ended up a twisted wreck, and it was somebody else's fault, procrastination is not your friend. This is also true if someone was responsible for damaging your home or personal property. You have to get to court within three years or you may lose your right to sue. You don't want to get on the wrong side of the California statute of limitations for property damage.
Understanding the Statutes of Limitations
A statute of limitations is a deadline to take an action to court. The idea is to keep court actions relatively close to the occurrence so that evidence is still around and witness memories are fresh.
But there is not just one statute of limitations. Each state develops its own limitations laws and, in California, different limitation periods apply to different types of actions. For example, while the government may have 10 years to charge someone for a particular crime, the time you have to sue for property damage in the state is only three years. You must figure which statute of limitations apply to your case. Then think of it as a hard and fast deadline to file a case in court.
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Statute of Limitation for Property Damage
If you want to sue someone for damage they did to your property in California, you must file suit within three years. The California statute of limitations for property damage is set out in the Code of Civil Procedure, Section 338. It is the applicable limitations period to ask for a money award to cover injury to either real property or personal property.
This statute of limitations applies regardless of what kind of circumstances were involved to create the property damage. It doesn't matter if your property was damaged, destroyed or stolen. It doesn't even matter if the person meant to do what they did or not.
You must file suit within three years if you want to recover money damages for any kind of property damage. Whether the lawsuit is for a theft, a vehicle accident, trespass or fraud, for all property damage claims in California, it's three years max.
If the Statute of Limitations Runs Out
So what happens if you miss the limitation period in California? In general, if you don't file a claim in court before the statute of limitations on a case runs out, your claim for property damages is no longer valid. It is said to be barred by the statute of limitations, and this is a valid defense to any lawsuit you will bring in most cases.
Note that some circumstances can toll, or suspend, the statute of limitations, which means they temporarily stop it from running. For example, if the person you want to sue leaves the state, goes to prison or is ruled insane, the California statute of limitations is tolled until the person returns to the state, gets out of prison or is ruled sane again. Likewise, if you want to sue someone who is under 18 years old, the statute is tolled until they turn 18.
Government Exception to Statute
If the person who caused the problem was an employee of a government or public entity, you may need to sue a government agency for the property damage. But if that's the case, look out. There's a special law in California for bringing suit against the government, and the timeframe for acting is much shorter than the general statute of limitations for property damage.
You'll have to submit a special administrative claim with the appropriate government office or agency before you can sue in court. And, you usually must use an official government form to file that claim. Claims for personal property damage must be filed within six months of the date of the injury, while real property damage claims have to be filed within one year.
Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. 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 M.A. and an M.F.A in creative 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.