Think of the opportunity to bring a lawsuit as a window of time. The framework of that window is found in a state's statutes of limitations. While there are a few crimes that have no limitation period in California, most do. And all cases brought for money damages in California have a set window of time in which you have to get your opening papers to court.
The actual time period is not difficult, but figuring out when the statute starts to run, or when it isn't running, is more complex. And if you miss it, you might lose the right to file the claim.
What Is a Statute of Limitations?
Court cases turn on facts and evidence. You see this all the time on television shows and movies: attorneys or detectives trying to piece together or prove what happened from the evidence available including witness testimony. Since evidence is fresher and memories clearer immediately after an event, it makes sense to require lawsuits to start within a reasonable time frame after an accident or incident.
In California, like in other states, there is not one statute of limitations, but many. Some are criminal statutes of limitations, meaning that they set out the period of time that the state has to file a criminal action against someone (e.g., charge someone with criminal assault). The other statutes of limitations are for civil cases, where the person bringing the action can be an individual or business entity. Civil cases range from breach of an oral contract to medical malpractice.
What Are the California Limitation Periods for Civil Cases?
California's civil statute of limitations laws are set out in the California Code of Civil Procedure. They are often based not on the type of accident but on the type of injuries sustained. For example, there is no California statute of limitations for car accidents. Instead, there is a statute of limitations for personal injury (harm to a person's body or mind) and another limitation period for personal property damage (e.g. dents and scrapes to car).
A short list of California statutes of limitations include:
- Six months for a claim against the state, state agencies or any government or public entity for damage suffered from any personal injury type of damages.
- One year for claims against the state, state agencies or any government or public entity for damage suffered from any property damage or contract.
- One year for libel or slander, which constitute damage to your reputation from the oral or written publication of false statements about you.
- Two years for breach of oral contract, which is the damage you suffer from another person not living up to the terms of a contract made verbally and not reduced to writing.
- Two years for personal injury, which are damages for injury to your person (body and mind) like medical bills, lost limbs, pain and suffering, etc.
- Three years for personal property damage, which is damage to your possessions (like vehicles) other than real estate.
- Four years for written contracts; that is, the damage you suffer when someone doesn't live up to the terms of a written agreement.
When Do the California Statutes of Limitations Run?
Figuring out the statutory time period for filing a particular damage claim in California is one thing. Figuring out when that time period ends is another. That is because California statute of limitations laws include circumstances that can pause or push out the limitation period. This is much more complicated. If you aren't sure of a statute of limitations deadline, consider consulting with an attorney, since, generally, if you miss the statute, you lose your cause of action.
For example, the time period to file a personal injury action in California is six months if you are making a claim against a public entity or two years if you are filing against a private person or entity. Generally that time period runs from the date of the injury, but sometimes a person suffers injuries that are not immediately apparent.
For example, suppose you banged your head against the windshield that led, over time, to brain damage. This delayed-discovery triggers another, supplemental period of one year from discovery in which you can file a lawsuit. Another example is a medical malpractice action. The statute is three years from the date of the injury, or one year from the date the plaintiff discovers, or reasonably should have discovered the injury, whichever occurs first.
Read More: California's Statute of Limitations: Negligence
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.