Personal Injury

How long do I have to file a personal injury lawsuit in California?

Reviewed by David Goguen, J.D., University of San Francisco School of Law

If you're thinking about filing a personal injury lawsuit in California, it's crucial to understand the statute of limitations and how it applies to your potential case. If you miss the filing deadline set by this law, you've almost certainly lost your right to any legal remedy against the person who caused your accident.

You Have Two Years to File Most Personal Injury Lawsuits in California

The statute of limitations that applies to most personal injury claims in California is California Code of Civil Procedure section 335.1, which says "there is a 2-year deadline for filing of an action for….injury to, or for the death of, an individual caused by the wrongful act or neglect of another." In this context, "neglect" is similar to "negligence," which is the legal argument most often used to establish liability in civil cases over accidents -- whether we're talking about a car accident, a slip and fall, or any other kind of mishap. (See Common Kinds of Personal Injury Claims.)

Bottom line: If you want to file a personal injury lawsuit of any kind in California, you need to get the initial paperwork -- including the personal injury complaint -- filed in court within two years, and the "clock" starts running on the date of the underlying incident (unless an exception to the standard deadline applies; more on these later).

Why Does This Deadline Matter?

It’s critical that you be aware of California's two-year deadline as it applies to your potential personal injury lawsuit. With rare exceptions (discussed below), if you miss the deadline, you will no longer have the right to sue the at-fault party and ask the court to award you damages for your injuries and other losses, no matter how badly you were hurt or how egregious the at-fault party's conduct.

Even if there’s a strong possibility that your case will settle outside of court (which is very common with personal injury claims) the threat of a looming lawsuit can be very useful in settlement negotiations. But if you’ve missed the statute of limitations deadline, and the other side knows it, you will have lost all of your bargaining power.

Exceptions to the California Statute of Limitations

There are a few scenarios that can alter the running of the two-year statute of limitations "clock" in a California personal injury case, and trigger a different deadline altogether:

  • if the injured person didn't discover, and was not aware of any facts that would have caused a reasonable person to suspect, that he or she had suffered harm caused by someone else's wrongful conduct (this is California's "delayed discovery" rule)
  • if the defendant leaves the state of California at some point after the underlying accident, and before the personal injury lawsuit can be filed and/or before the defendant can be "served" with process in connection with the lawsuit (California Code of Civil Procedure section 351), and
  • if the injured person was under the age of 18 or was "lacking the legal capacity to make decisions" (subject to a temporary mental illness, for example) at the time of the underlying accident (California Code of Civil Procedure section 352).

If you have questions about how the California personal injury statute of limitations applies to your case, it may be time to contact an experienced personal injury attorney. Especially if the filing deadline has already passed, or if it is right around the corner, it's important to get your case into the right hands and make sure your right to compensation is protected.

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