Statutes of Limitations for California Personal Injury Lawsuits

California statutes of limitations

The statute of limitations is the time period in which you must file a lawsuit

The statute of limitations is the time you have to file a personal injury lawsuit. If you don’t file in the correct amount of time, you can no longer make a legal claim. In California, as in every state, there are different statutes of limitations based on the type of lawsuit.

A “statute of limitations” is the amount of time you have to file a case in court, and that deadline is based on the type of lawsuit you wish to file. The clock begins to run on the date of the injury or, in some circumstances, on the date that the injury or illness was discovered.

Why is the statute of limitations important?

Because if you miss this deadline, you no longer have a legal claim.

If you’ve been injured, it’s important to contact a California personal injury lawyer as soon as possible. The statute of limitations might seem like plenty of time, but it takes a while for your attorney to evaluate your claim, decide if there are grounds for a lawsuit, and review some of the evidence to determine what your chances are for success.

The reason why states enforce statutes of limitations is because they help the legal system remain fair to all parties. If a plaintiff could sue a defendant a decade after an accident or injury happened, there’s a higher likelihood that evidence would no longer exist and that witnesses might not be available. Even if they are, accurate memories have faded.

A time limit is important for both the plaintiff and the defendant to be able make their cases with strong evidence and witness testimony.

Statute of limitations for California personal injury lawsuits

Each state has its own statutes of limitations. Here’s an overview of the statute of limitations for common types of personal injury cases in California:

Type of case Examples Statute of limitations
Personal injury Car accidents, slip and fall accidents, wrongful death, assault, battery, intentional or negligent infliction of emotional distress, and others 2 years from the date of injury
Property damage Damage or destruction of property without malicious intent like car accidents, taking property by breach of contract, trespass, fraud, nuisance 3 years from the date of damage
Libel or slander Damage to reputation 1 year from the date of injury
Fraud 3 years from the date of fraud
Oral contract Contract made through the spoken word 2 years from the date the contract was broken
Written contract 4 years from the date the contract was broken
Known real property problems Injury or damage caused by defects in property improvements, design, construction, etc. (usually lawsuits against builders or architects) 4 years from approximate completion of construction
Medical malpractice 1 year from the date that plaintiff knew or should have known about the injury, or 3 years from the date of injury (whichever is earlier)
Legal malpractice 1 year from the date that plaintiff knew or should have known about the wrong, with a maximum of 4 years from the date of the legal action
Debt collection 4 years from the date of debt owed

Exceptions to the statute of limitations in California

There are only a few exceptions to the statutes of limitations. In legal terms, this is called “tolling,” which is essentially a delay until the clock can begin to run again. This is usually because the potential plaintiff is incapable of filing a lawsuit.

Examples of when a statute of limitations might be tolled:

  • If the plaintiff is less than 18 years old, the statute of limitations begins when they turn 18. If the plaintiff was injured before birth (for example, a medical malpractice claim in a birth injury lawsuit), the statute of limitations is 6 years from the child’s birth. However, this exception doesn’t apply to general medical malpractice claims.
  • If the plaintiff is declared mentally incompetent. If the plaintiff was declared to be mentally incompetent at the time of the defendant’s conduct that caused the injury, the statute of limitations begins to run once the plaintiff is no longer considered mentally incompetent. Mental incompetence could be because of mental illness or an injury like brain trauma or a coma.
  • If the plaintiff dies within 6 months of the end of the statute of limitations. If the plaintiff dies with fewer than 6 months left in a statute of limitations, the lawsuit can be filed by their representatives within 6 months of the plaintiff’s death.
  • If the plaintiff is in prison, the statute of limitations tolls until their release or for 2 years — whichever is sooner.
  • If the plaintiff is performing military service, the statute of limitations tolls for the duration of their time in the military.
  • If the defendant is out of the state, the statute of limitations will pause until they return to the state. The exception doesn’t apply to a nonresident motorist or if the car involved in an accident was registered in California unless the plaintiff makes a reasonable effort to locate the defendant and can’t do so.

    If a defendant leaves the state for vacation, work, or some other reason, the plaintiff has an extension on the statute of limitations for the number of days that the defendant was away. For example, if the defendant is routinely out of state for business and the total number of trips away adds up to 3 months during the statute of limitations, the plaintiff has 3 additional months in which to file a lawsuit.
Enjuris tip: Although these are statutory exceptions, don’t delay contacting an attorney to file a lawsuit because you think your case falls into one of these categories. Let your attorney make that decision because there could be loopholes in the law and your situation might not fit neatly into one of these circumstances.

Statutes of limitations in claims against the government in California

You might need to file a lawsuit against a government entity, which includes any local or state agency. This could be a workers’ compensation claim, personal injury (like a slip-and-fall on a town sidewalk), property damage (a city snowplow that ran over your mailbox), or a variety of other actions.

You should know that the statutes of limitations against government entities are a little different than if you were filing against another private person or company.

A claim against a government agency is called an “administrative claim” (which is a precursor to a lawsuit) and it must be filed within 6 months of the date of the injury. If the action is for breach of contract or real property damage, it must be filed within 1 year of the date of the breach or the damage occurred.

Once you’ve filed an administrative claim, the government agency must respond within 45 days. If your claim is denied, you can file a lawsuit within 6 months from the date of the denial. If you don’t receive a response, you can file a lawsuit within 2 years of when the injury occurred.

Statutes of limitations in toxic tort claims in California

A toxic tort is an injury or illness that happened because of exposure to pollution or chemicals in the air, ground, or water that was the result of a person or company’s wrongful actions.

In California, there’s a 2-year statute of limitations on a toxic tort case that begins on the date that exposure happened. If someone died as a result of exposure, the 2-year time frame begins on the date of their death.

You might not know right away that your illness was caused by a toxin. One of the scary aspects to environmental harm is that sometimes the effects and symptoms don’t appear for years, or even decades. It can also be difficult to prove that the symptoms you’re experiencing are the result of exposure to a chemical or pollutant. A lawsuit for a toxic tort can be filed within 2 years from when the plaintiff knew (or reasonably should have known) that their illness was caused by the toxic exposure.

Birth defects as a result of toxic exposure

The exception to the general toxic tort rule is for babies with birth defects caused by exposure to toxic chemicals while in the womb.

Case study: Nguyen v. Western Digital Corporation (2014)
Baby Hanh Nguyen was born with several birth defects, including agenesis of the corpus callosum, which is a birth defect that affects the structure of the brain.

During her pregnancy, Hanh’s mother worked for Western Digital Corporation in its “clean rooms” that are used for manufacturing semiconductors. During the course of her work, she was exposed to chemicals that are known to cause harm to unborn children. Workers in these clean rooms weren’t protected from inhaling fumes from the chemicals and their protective clothing was insufficient to guard against absorption into the skin. 

Hanh’s parents took her to several doctors and specialists to determine the cause of her birth defects, but the doctors didn’t know that they were the result of occupational exposure to chemicals.

When Hanh was 14 years old, family members heard on the news that there were investigations into birth defects that could’ve been caused by mothers’ exposure to toxic chemicals in the semiconductor industry. It was then that the Nguyen family discovered that it was possible that Hanh’s birth defects could’ve been caused by the working conditions at Western Digital Corporation during her mother’s pregnancy.

The statute of limitations for birth defects in California is 6 years from the child’s birth, but the court found in Nguyen’s case that she had an extended period of time to file a lawsuit because the defendant was found to have concealed the fact that its chemicals could cause reproductive harm. The court therefore allowed the case to proceed from the time that the Nguyens first learned that the chemicals were the cause of Hanh’s birth defects.

When to contact a California personal injury attorney

Statutes of limitations are designed to keep the legal process fair for both parties, but especially for defendants.

Although these are statutory (written into law), there are loopholes and nuances. The statutes of limitations outlined above are general guidelines, but there could be exceptions in certain kinds of lawsuits. That’s why it’s essential to call a California personal injury lawyer as soon as you’re aware that you’ve been injured. The last thing you want to do is have your time to file a lawsuit disappear simply because you didn’t get the ball rolling soon enough.

Use the Enjuris Personal Injury Law Firm Directory to find a lawyer near you who can guide you through the process of filing a lawsuit and help you get the resolution you need.

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