Personal Injury

Statutes of Limitations

By
Benjamin Drake
on
September 25, 2020

Statutes of limitations are intended to ensure lawsuits are brought within a reasonable amount of time, as stale claims increase the chances that evidence will be lost or destroyed. After all, time can greatly alter physical evidence, memories, and the way people perceive an incident or set of events. Because the statute of limitations can vary depending on the facts of a case, it is strongly advised that injured victims and families speak with an attorney to determine the applicable statute of limitations that applies to their unique case as soon as possible. By reaching out to a qualified lawyer in a timely manner, you can be better positioned to initiate your case within the statutory window and provide your attorney with time to investigate and work on your case while evidence is still fresh.

How Long Do I Have to File a Lawsuit in California?

Determining whether you have the right to file a lawsuit after suffering a preventable injury can be challenging, especially if you are unfamiliar with personal injury law. Because every case is different, it is also a fact-specific task that requires a personalized review of the circumstances involved in your case. 

Apart from figuring out whether you have grounds to pursue a personal injury lawsuit – which are civil claims filed by victims seeking compensation for harm and losses they suffered due to the negligence of others – you will also need to determine how long you have to file that lawsuit. 

In California, most victims do not have the luxury of having an infinite amount of time to bring a lawsuit. State laws impose strict deadlines on personal injury lawsuits. This is known as the statute of limitations, and when the statutory window expires for your case, you will no longer have the right to bring a lawsuit against an at-fault party, and will be unable to recover financial compensation for your losses.

To ensure you retain the right to compensation, filing your personal injury lawsuit within the statute of limitations is an absolute must.

What is a Statute of Limitations?

A statute of limitations is the maximum amount of time allowed by law to initiate legal proceedings. 

When the amount of time specified in a statute of limitations passes, a claim can no longer be filed – or, if filed, will be subject to dismissal. If the statute of limitations passes in a criminal case, for example, the government will not be able to charge suspects with a crime. If the statute of limitations passes in civil claims like personal injury (known as torts), injured victims or families will not be able to sue for a recovery of their damages. 

Knowing the statute of limitations that applies to your case is crucial to ensuring that you file your lawsuit within the statutory window and retain the right to recover financial compensation for your losses. Though the filing of a lawsuit alone does not guarantee you will win or receive compensation, it is an absolute must if you want to have any chance at all.

The Statute of Limitations in California Personal Injury Lawsuits

Generally, the statute of limitations for personal injury cases in California is two years from the date of injury. However, this is a very general statute of limitations, as different types of personal injury cases can have different time deadlines. 

Depending on the facts of a case, the statute of limitations could very well be longer than two years, especially if a victim did not immediately “discover” their injuries or connect their injuries to negligence or misconduct. In some cases, the statute of limitations may be shorter than two years.

Although these are general timelines that may not apply to every case, common examples of statutory windows in California include:

  • Personal injury: 2 years
  • Wrongful death: 2 years
  • Wrongful birth: 6 years
  • Medical malpractice: 1 year*
  • Professional malpractice: 1 year*
  • Asbestos exposure: 1 year*
  • Fraud: 3 years*
  • Sexual abuse: 40 years of age, or 5 years after discovery (whichever is later)

*From the date of discovery

Discovery Rule, Tolling & Statutes of Limitations in CA 

Though injured victims typically have at least two years from the date of their injury to file a personal injury lawsuit, there are a number of cases where victims may legally have more time to bring a lawsuit. 

This is most common in cases where the “date of injury” is not immediately clear (such as the date a person was involved in a car accident or the date they slipped and fell in a supermarket), and the discovery of an injury or its underlying cause is delayed. It may also occur in cases involving certain exceptions that require the statute of limitations to be tolled (paused).

Delayed Discovery

California has a delayed discovery rule which allows the statute of limitations to be extended in certain cases. This usually happens when:

  1. A victim did not know the facts that would cause a reasonable person to suspect they were injured by another’s negligence or wrongful acts; or
  2. A reasonable investigation would have not revealed that a defective product or situation caused or contributed to a victim’s injury.

In personal injury cases involving a delayed discovery, victims may have the right to file lawsuits as late as one year after they knew or should have known about the injury or its cause. However, this means claims can be filed well beyond the general two years.

Tolling

In cases involving specific circumstances, the statute of limitations may be temporarily paused for a certain amount of time. For example, the statute of limitations may be tolled in cases involving:

  • Victims under the age of 18
  • Defendants located out of state
  • Incarcerated defendants
  • Defendants declared legally insane

The statute of limitations typically begins when the condition requiring tolling ends. However, personal injury claims involving tolling can be complex, and an evaluation from an experienced attorney is recommended to determine how it may affect your claim.

Examples of Personal Injury Statutes of Limitations by Case

Examples of cases where a different statute of limitations may apply include:

  • Minor victims: In personal injury cases involving minor victims, the statute of limitations is typically tolled until the minor turns 18. However, there are exceptions. In medical malpractice claims, for example, minors must file lawsuits no later than three years from the date of the alleged wrongful act or, if the child is under 6 years old, before they turn 8, whichever is later. In cases involving birth injuries sustained by a minor victim before or during their birth, lawsuits must be brought within six years of the date of birth.
  • Medical malpractice: California medical malpractice claims are subject to some of the shortest statutory windows: one year from date of discovery, and no more than three years from the date of injury. The discovery rule applies to medical malpractice claims because victims may not immediately know when they suffered harm due to the substandard care of a doctor, nurse, or some other medical professional. A patient whose skin cancer was misdiagnosed as benign, for example, would not discover until a later time that their doctor made a mistake. 
  • Crime victims: Victims injured as the result of felony crimes can sue a convicted offender for damages. These claims may be filed one year after a defendant is convicted, or 10 years from the date a defendant completes parole for a serious felony, such as kidnapping, rape, or murder.
  • Mesothelioma: Mesothelioma is a rare and fatal form of cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. Because mesothelioma has a long latency period, victims typically do not discover their condition until years or decades after their exposure. In California asbestos claims, victims can file suit one year from the date they first suffered a disability, or one year from the date they discover their disability was caused by exposure. 
  • Government defendants: Personal injury lawsuits against government entities, such as a municipality, county, or public agency are subject to unique rules and procedures, under either the California Tort Claims Act or the Federal Tort Claims Act. In addition to meeting different requirements, such as the filing of a timely notice of claim, these lawsuits must also be filed within a short statutory window: six months of the date of injury.
  • Child sex abuse: States across the country have passed legislation extending the statute of limitations for adults who were sexually abused or assaulted as minors. Under the recent passing of AB 218, victims of childhood sexual assault have until the age of 40 to file a civil lawsuit, or five years from the date they discover, or should have discovered, their trauma and injuries were caused by sexual assault, whichever is later. The new law also provides a three-year window beginning January 1, 2020 for victims to file claims previously barred by the statute of limitations, regardless of when their abuse occurred. 
  • Wrongful death: Though the statute of limitations for most wrongful death claims is two years from the date of death, families who do not discover their loved one’s death until after the date of death, as well as families who discover the underlying wrongful cause after the date of death, may file claims no later than two years from the date of discovery. In cases involving the wrongful death of a parent, minor children have two years from the date they turn 18 to file claims.

Let Drake Law Firm Review Your Potential Case

Statutes of limitations are intended to ensure lawsuits are brought within a reasonable amount of time, as stale claims increase the chances that evidence will be lost or destroyed. After all, time can greatly alter physical evidence, memories, and the way people perceive an incident or set of events.

Because the statute of limitations can vary depending on the facts of a case, it is strongly advised that injured victims and families speak with an attorney to determine the applicable statute of limitations that applies to their unique case as soon as possible. By reaching out to a qualified lawyer in a timely manner, you can be better positioned to initiate your case within the statutory window, and provide your attorney with time to investigate and work on your case while evidence is still fresh.

At Drake Law Firm, our legal team offers FREE and confidential consultations to help you learn more about your right to file a personal injury lawsuit. To speak with a lawyer, call or contact us online.

The information and the list of the statutes on this page is not intended to apply to a specific case. If you have any questions on which statute of limitation applies to your specific fact or case, you must speak to an experienced personal injury attorney regarding any limitations or statutes that may apply to your case.