Dec 28, 2020

Statute of Limitations for Filing Lawsuits in California Courts

Statute of limitations illustration
The word "limitations."

U.S. Federal And California State Laws

Civil statutes of limitations were enacted into law to limit a civil plaintiff's time to commence their lawsuit. Similar statutes of limitations apply to limit criminal prosecutions of defendants (no statute of limitations for murder). Lawmakers conceived and passed these "statutes of limitations" deadlines so the parties can avoid injustice. The reasoning is that witnesses can disappear, die, or their memories can fade, evidence can be lost, and the plaintiff's delaying a case can hang over a defendant's head like the Sword of Damocles. If the plaintiff has indeed suffered some wrong, he or she would have brought a case within a reasonable time. 

If the plaintiff allows the statute of limitations to expire, their legal claim will be invalid, and a court will refuse to accept that lawsuit unless a judge decides that an exception applies and extends the filing deadline. Statute or contract law governs the period. For example, suppose you are suing a government agency or cruise ship company. In that case, you must file a claim for damages within a specified time before you are entitled to file a lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court. And a two-year statute of limitations applies in most personal injury cases in California. But that doesn't mean we wait. This tenuous deadline is why you must speak to a lawyer as soon as possible!

NOTE: Murder and some other crimes have no statute of limitations. If you believe that you have a claim, it can be difficult to determine your particular statute of limitations. When you are unsure what statute of limitations rules apply to your case, you must call your lawyer.

The California Rules of Civil Procedure and Government Code rules contain most state rules, while other states and the federal government have their regulations limiting your lawsuit rights. Your time to institute a damages claim can range from anywhere between 6 months to 10 years.

The typical "tolling period" will begin to run if the plaintiff had received knowledge or should have been capable of comprehending they had been wronged. If the aggrieved party failed to discover the insult or injury because the party was a minor, incompetent, imprisoned, or mentally deficient, equitable exceptions apply to extend the time to sue. (was the party in a coma, suffering asbestosis, mesothelioma?)

By a party filing a motion or by a court using its sua sponte power in the interests of justice, courts can extend the time to sue, especially when a defendant hides culpability delays the action. Trial judges will strictly enforce this general statutory rule. California court delay reduction rules also seek to efficiently administer justice, hesitating to hear antiquated disputes, preferring protecting defendants from being dragged into court years later. If the defendant answers, fails to demurrer, or file a motion to dismiss summary judgment, you can argue the party waived the affirmative statute of limitations defenses after hearing the plaintiff's case on the merits.

A party must know that different California claims called "causes of action" will come with their own specific times to sue. So technically, a defendant can ask the trial court to toss out part of the plaintiff's stale claims, but courts will allow the suing party's remaining causes of action to proceed to litigation.

What Statutes Of Limitations Most Commonly Apply In California Courts?

California Code of Civil Procedure Section 312-366 identifies the standard periods a party can file a lawsuit.

  • Personal Injury: The plaintiff must timely file their Personal injury lawsuit, denying more than two years to expire from the real party in interest's injury date. If the person later notices their harm, their time to file a lawsuit is extended for a one-year period from the discovery date. California Code of Civil Procedure Section 335.1 contains the specific rules. A personal injury happens when you are injured by someone whether or not they intended to cause you harm. A personal injury can be from a car accident, assault, battery, wrongful death. The plaintiff has the right to sue a defendant for intentional, illegal, or negligent acts, physical or emotional distress. 
  • Property Damage: Generally, a party seeking a court action will have three years to file their case from the property damage date. California Code of Civil Procedure section 338 is the applicable statute. This property destruction can be intentional or due to negligence. Any person seeking to recover money for property damage from a vehicle collision, fraud, nuisance, or trespass must abide by the statute.
  • Breach of a Written Contract: Typically, a party seeking to file an action for breach of a written instrument will have four-years from the breach date for them to lodge their court papers. California Code of Civil Procedures Section 337 contains the written statute of limitations.
  • Breach of Oral Contract: An aggrieved party seeking to sue someone else for breach of an oral contract will be granted a three-years from the time another party breached the contract so they can file their California court documents. Oral contracts are not written down because they are an agreement between the plaintiff and the defendant. However, some written proof may exist, such as a receipt, canceled check, or paper document memorializing evidence of an oral contract. California Code of Civil Procedure Section 339 contains the written statute of limitations guidelines for oral contract cases. 

Special Problem - How Do I Figure Out The Statute Of Limitations In A Government Case?

  • Government Agency Claims: These parties will have sovereign immunity, so a specific procedure must be followed to sue them. A party seeking to make a claim for damages against a government agency or clerk will have six months from the damage date to file their official government papers. The papers filed against this public body or office are known as an “Administrative Claim.” This procedure requires the complainant to use the government’s official form. If the agency head denies your claim for damages, you have the authority to file a lawsuit in court.
    1. Personal Property, Personal Injury, and Wrongful Death. Filing these types of claims against a government agency or office will mean filing an administrative claim within six months from the injury or death date. California Government Code Section 911.2 contains the statute of limitations to file a personal injury or wrongful death claim against an agency. If you want to learn more about this type of government claim, you should review California Government Code Section 905 and Section 911.2.
    2. Real Property Damages and Breach of Contract. Is an official agency responsible for causing damage to your real property, breaching a contract, or creating "any other cause of action."?  California Government Code Section 911.2 allows parties up to one year to file an administrative claim form from the date of their insult or injury.

California Government Code Section 912.4 contains rules granting the government agency or office an extended time period of up to 45 days for these agents to respond.

What Must I Do If The Agency Does Not Respond to My Claim in 45 Days?

  • Do Not Respond. If the government agency or office does not provide you with an answer to your claim during the 45-day period; you must file your court lawsuit within six months from that time. In cases where you receive a rejection letter, you will have six months to file a court case from the date you received your denial letter by mail or by hand-delivery. Government Code, Section 912.4, and 912.6 contain these guidelines.

Special Rule: If a public servant violated your federal civil rights, for example, the aggrieved party would have a one-year deadline to sue in court from the date of injury.

When you want to file a legal claim with the court or with a government agency or office, a free attorney consultation helps prevent errors in the computation of statute limitations.

*The court self-help resources might be assistive in your case.

CAVEAT: You must know that allowing the statute of limitations to expire means the court clerk will stamp your pleading documents as "received" instead of "filed." Your next case may be against the lawyer who blew your statute to sue time.

When is the Statute of Limitations Suspended?

Sometimes the statute of limitations will be suspended by "tolling the statute of limitations." For example, courts will toll the statute if one of the parties is imprisoned. Other parties outside the statute are minors, people out of the country, and insane people. The tolling period ends when a party reaches majority, is released from prison, returned to the state of California, or no longer remains insane.  After that condition is satisfied, the period of limitations will finally resume.

CAVEAT: Cases that have tolled statute issues and a government office or agency can complicate matters.

What Are Some Less Well-Known Statute of Limitations?

  • Personal Property Left. California Code of Civil Procedure section 341a contains the Personal Property Left rules at a hospital, nursing home, sanitarium, hotel, lodging house, apartment, or boarding house claims. The rule is that the aggrieved party has 90-days to file a claim from the date they vacated the premises.
  • The breach of sale goods section is located in the California Commercial Code section 2725. The statute of limitations time is two years from the date of property damage.
  • Claims against a Health-Care Provider: This type of claim is also known as Medical Malpractice. The plaintiff must file their lawsuits within one year from the date plaintiff is aware of their injury or three years from when they must have known about the injury. This discovery date will be determined by whichever date is earlier—this section is outlined in California Code of Civil Procedures Section 340.5California Code of Civil Procedure section 364 contains an additional requirement that you must give a health-care provider 90 days' notice before you can file your court lawsuit.
  • Libel and Slander: Libel is when a defendant vilifies you in writing, print, or photographs, and slander is when they verbally insult you or your character.  California Code of Civil Procedures Section 340c contains the rules requiring a plaintiff to sue within one year from the date of injury.
  • Unknown Problems - “Latent Defects”: Latent defects occur with real property design improvement, construction that caused damage to real estate or personal property, and survey of the real property—this type of legal claim filing often against an architect, builder, or contractor. California Code of Civil Procedures Section 337.15 contains the rules requiring a plaintiff to sue within ten-years from the date of construction.
  • Claims Against Banks: If you want to sue your bank for paying a forged check without your authorization, you have 12 months to sue from the date the bank paid. California Code of Civil Procedure Section 340 contains the statutory rules.


Need to schedule an appointment for legal advice in a city near you? Reach out to a California personal injury lawyer specialist near you or another location or practice area as follows:

Torrance wrongful death lawyer, Torrance car accident lawyer, Best Torrance motorcycle accident lawyer.

Need a civil injury lawyer closer to you? Reach out to a:

Bus Accident lawyer in Newport Beach, CA, Redondo Beach Bicycle Pathway Accident Lawyers, Marina del Rey, CA accident lawyers near you.

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