By Logan Quirk
A state’s personal injury statute of limitations, in short, sets a limit on the amount of time an individual has after an injury or harm to go to court and file suit. The statute is set individually by states, with California having its own legal code relating to this time limit.
It is important to note that depending on the particular situation, the statute of limitations may change. These exceptions include both shortened and lengthened statutes of limitations. But the circumstances which create these modified time limits can be confusing.
In this article, we’ll lay out California’s Statute of Limitations for injury, why it exists, and the different factors that can affect it.
Many people often complain that statutes of limitations are too short or should not exist at all. Some even say they are a way for guilty parties to shirk their responsibility. While statutes of limitations are considered protection for potential defendants, there are logical reasons for their enactment.
Firstly, statutes of limitations work on the presumption that a plaintiff with a valid cause of action (facts that enable the filing of a suit) would pursue it within ‘a reasonable time’. A plaintiff claiming an injury 15 years after the fact may cause warning bells to ring with respect to the validity of the claim.
Exceptions in extremely limited circumstances do exist, however, and we will look at these later in the article.
The legal time limit also protects against malicious claims. For example – an individual may injure himself while visiting a close friend, through no fault of the host. Ten years later, these two friends have an acrimonious falling out. The first man decides to claim his injury occurred due to the host’s negligence.
Due to the statute of limitations, a California court would not hear this fraudulent and revenge-driven attempt.
An important consideration is that if a claim is brought after a long period of time, evidence and witnesses may no longer be available or reliable. This usually makes for a hearsay-based case. But the defendant may also no longer have access to evidence and witnesses that would exonerate him or her of wrongdoing.
The legal code for California’s statute of limitations on personal injury cases can be found in the California Code of Civil Procedure section 335.1. The C.C.P. procedure reads as follows:
“CHAPTER 3. The Time of Commencing Actions Other Than for the Recovery of Real Property [335 – 349.4]
( Chapter 3 enacted 1872. )
Within two years: An action for assault, battery, or injury to, or for the death of, an individual caused by the wrongful act or neglect of another.
(Added by Stats. 2002, Ch. 448, Sec. 2. Effective January 1, 2003.)”
As you might guess, the term ‘neglect’ ties in with the legal term ‘negligence’, opening up individuals and organizations that caused harm through not taking sufficient care to legal action.
Extra observant readers may have also noticed the phrase ‘effective January 1, 2003.’ Before that date, the statute of limitations for personal injury claims was actually one year as outlined by C.C.P 340.
The 2003 amendment created a two-year statute of limitations for personal injury as well as wrongful death, assault, and battery. Slander, libel, and false imprisonment, however, remain under the one-year statute.
In the overwhelming majority of cases, once the statute of limitations has expired, your case will almost certainly be unsuccessful. Even the most inexperienced defense lawyer will be aware of the statute, and once it’s expiration is pointed out, the court summarily dismisses the case.
This holds true no matter how egregious the injury or if the defendant is without a shadow of a doubt at fault.
An important thing to remember is the expiration of a personal injury statute of limitations can negatively affect your ability to secure a fair settlement. This is because of one simple factor: loss of leverage.
Whether you are negotiating a settlement with the party directly or with their insurance company, the knowledge that you can take them to court and possibly be awarded a large settlement greatly informs how much they are willing to offer. Once that time has expired, you have lost this leverage and can expect to receive much lesser offers in terms of a settlement.
While the statute of limitations is upheld in the majority of cases, you should certainly not assume because two years have passed you have no legal recourse. Knowledgeable lawyers experienced in personal injury law are able to look at your particular case and inform you as to whether it meets one of the highly specific, but well-enforced exceptions.
Your case may meet a number of these criteria, or at the very least have a factor that is open to interpretation. They can be quite intricate and confusing, but we’ll simplify the most common ones.
Like many words recognizable from the English language, ‘discovery’ actually has a specific legal connotation in this context. ‘Discovery’ occurs when the plaintiff actually becomes aware of an injury or other harm caused by another’s actions or negligence.
If you are hit by a drunk driver and end up with an obviously broken arm, the injury is discovered right then and there. However, there are many injuries that do not immediately become apparent.
Let’s say you worked in a factory for one year that was later proven to expose its employees to a chemical that causes a specific type of cancer. Then 10 years later you develop this very same illness. Here, you likely will be able to successfully pursue a personal injury case for up to two years after your diagnosisas opposed to your time at the factory.
But there is another interpretation of this rule. A defendant can argue, and judge uphold, that there was an earlier time the defendant should have discovered the harm.
We can go back to the previous hypothetical case for an example of this. Five years after working at the factory, the plaintiff began to experience unusual health-related problems – coughing bouts, continued weakness, etc. However, she ignores these issues for 3 years before finally going to the doctor and being diagnosed.
The defendant can argue that she should have investigated these problems three years ago, and thus discovery should begin at that time. It is entirely likely a judge would agree and dismiss the suit.
This ties into the legal terms arise and accrue, which are important to understand. Harm arises at the time of occurrence – and if the plaintiff is immediately aware of it, the cause of action also accrues simultaneously. However, although the injury may have arisen months or years previously, it is only when it is discovered (or reasonably should have been discovered) that the cause of action accrues.
As outlined by California Code of Civil Procedure section 352, the person experiencing harm was under the age of 18, the statute of limitation does not begin to ‘tick’ until he or she has achieved the age of majority. Similarly, if the plaintiff is found to have been “lacking the legal capacity to make decisions” for any period during the statute of limitations, “the time of the disability is not part of the time limited for the commencement of the action.” Whether it is just after the harm occurs, or this period of disability occurs one year later, that time period is excluded from the statutes clock.
Statute of limitation time also does not run if the plaintiff is unable to file suit due to imprisonment. However, this exception itself has a time limit – the maximum time of exception due to imprisonment is also two years.
If the party accused of causing the harm leaves California after the cause of action accrues but before the suit can be filed, his or her time out of state does not count towards the statute of limitations clock. This is also true if the cause of action accrues while the alleged offender is out of state. The statute of limitations clock will not begin until the party returns to California.
While it is far from a common occurrence, there is a provision for if a person who action may have been brought against dies before the expiration of the statute of limitations. When this occurs, if the cause of action is still ruled viable, the plaintiff can pursue a suit for up to a year after the potential defendant’s passing. This holds true independent of the statute of limitations.
This means if the death occurred two weeks before the SOL’s expiration, the plaintiff will still have a year from that point to file suit.
Let’s take another hypothetical case to explain this particular exception. Harry, a homeless man, was seriously injured in a hit-and-run accident. Having neither the knowledge nor financial means to pursue legal action, he was treated and released, but would suffer limited mobility for the rest of his life.
Five years later, Harry is gainfully employed when he is contacted by the police who tell him the driver was caught. He testifies, and 6 months later the driver is convicted of felony hit and run.
You may think: ‘Good for the wheels of justice, but unfortunate Harry cannot file a personal injury suit.’ In this case, however, Harry can.
The reason is that the offender has been convicted of a felony offense related to the injury caused. The California Code of Civil Procedure clearly states that if the cause of action stems from a proven felony offense, a plaintiff can file suit up to one year after the conviction. This is regardless of the statute of limitations’ expiration.
This exception differs in that, perhaps unsurprisingly, it is in the defendant’s favor. In nearly all such cases, you first will have to file an administrative claim. Though a common time frame to film this claim is six months, there are cases where it can be as little as 30 days.
This applies to all claims against a city, county or California state government agency. This claim will likely be denied, but a suit cannot be pursued until this claim has been submitted.
If and when this is denied, you will be informed of how much time you now have to file a lawsuit. The federal government generally allows the two-year statute of limitations. However, there is no guarantee.
In short, if your case involves a government or state agency, it is doubly important to contact an experienced injury lawyer as soon as possible to begin the claim process.
At Quirk Law, we utilize years of experience in order to ensure you are compensated fairly for any personal injury you may have suffered. Be it an automotive accident, slip and fall, dog bite or another type of personal injury, we have the experience and know-how to fight for your rights.
We accept all level of injuries – from temporary injuries like broken bones that may affect your ability to work to paralysis, traumatic brain injury, or the tragic wrongful death of a loved one.
Our expertise also allows us to look closer at cases other lawyers may have turned down due to an expired statute of limitations. We delve into your specific case to discover whether any exceptions may apply, or if there is another course of action.
For instance, it may be possible to plead a different cause of action, the statue of limitations of which has not yet expired. In special circumstances, you can even file suit in a different state with a longer statute of limitations.
Highly experienced and skillful lawyers like Logan Quirk will draw upon all possibilities under the law to get you the type of compensation you deserve. With offices in Los Angeles and Thousand Oaks, Quirk Law group also serves the areas of San Diego, Oakland, and Las Vegas.
Have you suffered a personal injury? Contact us today for a free consultation.