Understanding Statutes of Limitations
A statute of limitations is the deadline for filing a lawsuit. Most lawsuits must be filed within a certain amount of time. In general, once the statute of limitations on a case “runs out,” the legal claim is not valid any longer.
The period of time during which you can file a lawsuit varies depending on the type of legal claim. Here are the statutes of limitations for some common types of legal disputes:
• Personal injury: Two years from the injury. If the injury was not discovered right away, then it is one year from the date the injury was discovered.
• Breach of a written contract: Four years from the date the contract was broken
• Breach of an oral contract: Two years from the date the contract was broken
• Property damage: Three years from the date the damage occurred
• Claims against government agencies: You must file a claim with the agency within six months (for some cases, one year) of the incident. If the claim is denied, you can then file your lawsuit in court but there are strict limits to when, so read the section on government claims and the chart on statute of limitations below.
Some crimes, such as murder, are considered so terrible that they often have no statute of limitations, period.
Figuring out when the statute of limitations runs out on a claim is not easy. If you have any doubts about how to calculate the time you have, talk to a lawyer. Your court’s self-help resources may also be able to help you find out more about the statute of limitations in your case.
When you sue a government agency, you first have to file a special claim (called an “administrative claim”) with the government office or agency before you file in court. You have to use the government’s form to file the claim.
• For personal injury or personal property damage, you must file your administrative claim within six months of the date of the injury (with some exceptions - speak with a lawyer to determine the particulars of your specific case).
• For breach of contract and real property damage cases, you must file your administrative claim within one year of the date the contract was broken or the real property damage occurred. After you file your claim, the government has 45 days to respond. If the government agency denies your claim during the 45 days, you have six months to file a lawsuit in court from the date the denial was mailed or personally delivered to you. If you do not get a rejection letter, you have two years to file from the day the incident occurred. But do not count on having two years to file your claim.
The statute of limitations for government claims can be complicated to figure out. Talk to a lawyer if you have any doubts about how much time you have. Your court’s self-help resources may also be able to help you find out more about the statute of limitations in your case.
Tolling of the statute of limitations
Sometimes the statute of limitations is suspended (“tolled”) for a period of time and then begins to run again. For example, tolling may happen when the defendant is a minor, out of the state or in prison, or insane. When the reason for the tolling ends (like if the minor turns 18, or the defendant returns to California or gets out of prison, or the defendant is no longer insane), the statute of limitations begins to run again.
Cases dealing with tolling may be very complicated, and you will need to talk to a lawyer.
How statutes of limitations differ between personal injury and property damage
“Injury to a person” occurs when the defendant hurts you with or without intending to hurt you. For example, personal injury accidents, wrongful death, assault, battery, intentional or negligent infliction of emotional distress, wrongful act, or negligent act, etc. The typical statute of limitations for these scenarios is two years from the date of injury.
“Damage to property” is when the defendant damages or destroys your property either with or without intending to damage it. For example, taking your personal property (conversion), crashing your vehicle, going onto your property without permission (trespass), fraud, nuisance, etc. The typical statute of limitations for these scenarios is three years from the date the property was damaged.
It is always important to make sure you read the law that applies to your specific case because there may be exceptions or other laws that apply to the facts in your case. Talk to a lawyer to make sure you understand the statute of limitations that applies to your specific case.
Information for this article was provided by the California Courts Judicial Branch of California. Learn more at courts.ca.gov.