Time Limits to Sue After You’ve Been Injured: Statutes of Limitations in Personal Injury Cases

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Time Limits to Sue After You’ve Been Injured: Statutes of Limitations in Personal Injury Cases

What is a statute of limitations?

A “statute of limitations” is a law that sets a time limit on when a particular claim must be filed in court. 

Defendants frequently assert the statute of limitations as a defense to lawsuits.  And subject to a few exceptions, outlined below, a person who attempts to file a lawsuit after the statute of limitations has expired, would likely have their case dismissed.  This means the person might not receive any compensation for an injury caused by someone else.

2.       Why are there statutes of limitations?

The primary purpose of statutes of limitations is to provide defendants with sufficient notice to allow them to gather and preserve evidence in a timely fashion, while the evidence is still “fresh.”  See, e.g., McDonald v. Antelope Valley Community College Dist., 45 Cal. 4th 88, 102 (2008).

On one hand, a statute of limitations encourages plaintiffs to be diligent about pursuing their claims.  On the other hand, statutes of limitations promote fairness in our judicial system by taking into account the fact that witnesses may move away, memories may fade, and evidence may break down or be unintentionally discarded.

2.       How long does a plaintiff have to file a lawsuit for compensation in California when they’ve been injured by someone else?

The length of time a plaintiff has to file a lawsuit in California depends on the type of claim you are bringing.  A plaintiff might be able to bring more than one type of claim in a case, and a different statute of limitations might apply to each claim.

There are many different legal claims that can be brought when someone is injured by another.  The most common claim brought in a motorcycle accident case, for example, is a claim for negligence.  In California, negligence is the failure to use reasonable care to prevent harm to others.  See, e.g., Cal. Civ. Code § 1714.

If you are wondering whether you have a claim that must be filed within a certain timeframe, do not hesitate to contact us.  One of our experienced attorneys would be happy to consult with you.

In most cases, the statute of limitations to file a personal injury lawsuit in California is two years from the date of injury.  Cal. Civ. Proc. Code § 335.1.  These are examples of specific types of claims that might be brought in California, along with the time limit to bring those claims:

Negligence                     2 years

Assault/Battery               2 years

False imprisonment         2 years

Medical malpractice         1 year (from discovery of injury; no more than 3 years)

Asbestos exposure           1 year

Toxic Exposure              2 years

Wrongful death               2 years

Wrongful birth               6 years

Child sex abuse/assault    When the victim is 40 years old or 5 years after the victim discovers the abuse (whichever is later)

Felony victim                  1 year (from conviction)

Victim of serious felony    10 years (from conviction)

See Cal. Civ. Proc. Code §§ 335.1, 340, 340.1, 340.2, 340.3, 340.4, 340.6.

In a semi-trailer accident case, for example, the date of injury would be the day of the collision.  In other words, the date of the collision would be the date on which the statute of limitations would start—or begin to “run.” 

Sometimes, however, it is not so clearcut when a statute of limitations begins to run.

3.       What if a plaintiff discovers an injury after the incident that caused the injury?

A plaintiff will occasionally discover an injury sometime after the incident that caused the injury. 

In those cases, the statute of limitations will generally start to run when the plaintiff either (a) actually discovers the injury and its cause or (b) the plaintiff should have discovered the injury if the plaintiff were being reasonably diligent. 

This is called the “discovery rule,” and it says that a statute of limitations will not begin to run until the plaintiff is aware of their injury and its cause.  See, e.g., Jolly v. Eli Lilly & Co., 44 Cal. 3d 1103, 1109 (1988).

Put another way, if a plaintiff discovers their injury after the usual statute of limitations has expired, their lawsuit will still be considered timely if the plaintiff can show the delay in discovering their injury was reasonable.  That is, if the plaintiff can show a reasonable person would not have discovered the injury in time to satisfy the statute of limitations, then the plaintiff can proceed with their lawsuit.  See, e.g., CACI No. 455.

It is also important to keep in mind that sometimes the law puts a hard limit on how long a plaintiff has to file a lawsuit, regardless of when an injury is discovered.  Medical malpractice claims, for example, have to be filed within three years from the date of injury, subject to very specific exceptions.  See Cal. Civ. Proc. Code § 340.5.

4.       Can a statute of limitations be put on pause?

There are a few instances when a statute of limitations might be put on hold or, as lawyers might say, “tolled.” 

In some cases, there are specific laws that suspend a statute of limitations, meaning it does not run while being tolled.  As explained in more detail below, statutes of limitations generally do not begin to run, for example, while a plaintiff is still a minor.

In other cases, the court might decide that equitable tolling applies.  As the California Supreme Court explained it:

The equitable tolling of statutes of limitations is a judicially created . . . doctrine.  . . .  It is designed to prevent unjust and technical forfeitures of the right to a trial on the merits . . . .  Where applicable, the doctrine will suspend or extend a statute of limitations as necessary to ensure fundamental practicality and fairness.

McDonald v. Antelope Valley Community College Dist., 45 Cal. 4th 88 (2008).

Whether tolling applies is a complex legal question.  If you are questioning whether you might be able to file your lawsuit after the usual statute of limitations has expired, feel free to contact us.  One of our experienced attorneys would be happy to consult with you.

5.       What happens when the plaintiff is a minor or lacks legal capacity?

A minor is someone under eighteen years old.  Thus, minors and others who do not have the legal ability to make decisions for themselves (e.g., someone under a guardianship or conservatorship), are said to lack legal capacity. 

Under California law, the time period that someone is a minor, or otherwise lacking legal capacity, is excluded from the allowable time to bring a lawsuit.  See Cal. Civ. Proc. Code § 352(a).  Another way to put this is that the statute of limitations is tolled (or put on pause) while a plaintiff is a minor or otherwise lacks legal capacity.  And once the plaintiff is an adult, or otherwise gains legal capacity, the statute of limitations begins to run.

There are, however, important exceptions to this rule.  For example, a minor must bring medical malpractice claims either (a) within three years of the harmful act or (b) if the minor is under six years old when injured, then prior to the minor’s eighth birthday—whichever is later.  See Cal. Civ. Proc. Code § 340.5.

6.       What happens when the defendant is a government agency?

Special time limits apply to filing claims against government agencies and government employees. 

In general, any claim for monetary compensation (also known as “damages”) must be submitted to a government agency within six months of the date of injury.  See Cal. Gov’t Code § 911.2.  The government agency then has a certain amount of time to respond before a plaintiff can bring state-law claims against the government agency or its employees.  If the government agency rejects the claim, a lawsuit must be filed within six months of the rejection.  See Cal. Gov’t code § 945.6.

These Government Code requirements are in addition to the usual statutes of limitations.  In other words, a plaintiff must satisfy both the Government Code requirements and the statute of limitations that would normally apply to the plaintiff’s claim or claims.

There are some instances when a plaintiff will be excused from complying with the Government Code requirements.  If you have questions about filing a lawsuit against a city, county, agency, department, or other public entity, it is highly recommended that you speak with an attorney experienced in bringing claims against government agencies and government employees.

7.       What is the first step someone should take if they are considering suing someone for personal injury compensation?

If you have been seriously injured because of someone else’s negligence, recklessness, or other misconduct, you may be entitled to compensation from the individual(s) who harmed you.

You may have insurance companies or defense lawyers trying to contact you.  They can be intimidating.  When dealing with them, it helps if you have a good understanding of your potential legal claims, as well as a good understanding of how much money you should receive as compensation for your injuries.

We invite you to call us to consult with one of our experienced California personal injury attorneys.