What is the Personal Injury Statute of Limitations in California?

California's personal injury statutes of limitations set strictly-enforced time limits on your legal right to have an injury claim heard in the state's civil court system.

By , J.D. · University of San Francisco School of Law
Updated by Charles Crain, Attorney · UC Berkeley School of Law

Many of the steps in a personal injury lawsuit are similar (or even identical) no matter where you live. But there are important differences from state to state. If you've been hurt by someone else's negligence in California, make sure you know how the state's laws apply to your situation.

One of the crucial rules to keep in mind is California's statute of limitations for personal injury cases. If you miss this deadline, you'll almost certainly lose your legal right to seek compensation from the person who caused your injuries. There are rare situations where a court will allow you more time. But you'll always be better off if you know and meet the deadline that applies to your case.

California's Filing Deadlines for Personal Injury Lawsuits

California law gives people two years to file a civil lawsuit seeking compensation for "injury to, or for the death of, an individual caused by the wrongful act or neglect of another."

This law covers almost all personal injury lawsuits, since those cases are generally governed by the liability principle of negligence. (California's statute of limitations uses the word "neglect" in place of negligence, but they mean the same thing in this context.)

(Cal. Civ. Code § 335.1 (2024).)

When a Different Statute of Limitations Could Apply

Even though the two-year deadline applies to most personal injury cases, you should still make sure it covers the particular harm you've suffered. For example, if you've been hurt by the negligence of a health care provider, you'll need to know California's rules for medical malpractice cases. California applies a different deadline to those kinds of cases--if someone wants to file a medical malpractice case they must do so either:

  • within three years from the date they were injured, or
  • within one year from the date they discovered (or should have discovered) their injury.

(Cal. Civ. Code § 340.5 (2024).)

Make Sure You Know the Deadline for Your Case

If you're unsure which rules apply to your case, it may be a good idea to consult with an attorney. A California attorney with experience handling personal injury cases should know your deadline for filing a lawsuit, and give you other helpful advice. You can also consult the website for the California's courts, which has a guide to the statutes of limitations for different kinds of cases.

What Happens If You Miss California's Filing Deadline

If you try to file a personal injury lawsuit after the statute of limitations deadline has passed, your case will almost certainly be dismissed. When a case is dismissed for failing to meet the filing deadline, the plaintiff loses their right to seek compensation ("damages", in legal terms) from the person who caused their injuries.

A plaintiff who misses the filing deadline can't get more time just because they have a strong case, because they suffered very serious injuries or financial losses, or because the defendant engaged in particularly irresponsible behavior. This may seem unfair, but statutes of limitations are intended to balance fairness to an injured person against fairness to potential defendants.

For example, imagine that someone slips while walking up your front steps. You thought it was just an unfortunate accident, and the person seemed okay. But a few days later they send you an email saying that they sprained their ankle, and threatening to sue you for causing the injury. You consult with a lawyer, but months go by and you don't hear anything more from the person. If two years pass, and that person still has not filed a lawsuit, California law assumes that you should be able to stop worrying about being sued in the future.

Remember, too, that even without a statute of limitations it's almost always in a plaintiff's best interest to file a lawsuit sooner rather than later. The longer someone waits to start their case, the more difficult it may be to gather evidence and to convince a jury that they suffered serious harm.

Moving quickly and being aware of California's filing deadline also influences your position in personal injury settlement negotiations. Whether you're negotiating with the person who harmed you, or with their insurance company, they will probably take your claim more seriously if you begin the process soon after your injury, and attempt to move it along at a reasonable speed.

On the other hand, if you allow months to pass without trying to move things forward, the other side will probably assume that you don't care much about your own claim. And, of course, once the two-year deadline has passed you won't be able to use the possibility of a lawsuit as leverage to negotiate a fair settlement.

When You Might Have More Time to File a Personal Injury Lawsuit

California has identified several situations where it would be unfair to hold injured people to the two-year filing deadline. In these situations, the statute of limitations "clock" might:

  • start running at some point after the person was injured, instead of on the date of the incident, or
  • be paused after it has started to run.

In either case, the two-year filing deadline is effectively extended. Here are some examples of when a plaintiff could be entitled to more time.

The "delayed discovery" rule applies. This exception to the usual two-year deadline is for situations where an injured person did not immediately know (and could not reasonably have suspected) that they'd been harmed by someone else's wrongful conduct. In these situations, the injured person can argue that the clock should have started ticking when they learned of their injuries, not when the injuries actually occurred. This can come up, for example, if someone slowly develops long-term health problems after being exposed to dangerous chemicals, or after taking a drug with undisclosed side effects.

The victim was young or legally incapacitated. This exception applies when someone was under the age of 18, or was "lacking the legal capacity to make decisions" (because, for example, they were subject to a mental illness) at the time of the underlying incident. In these cases, the clock starts ticking when the victim gains (or regains) the ability to make decisions about their own legal interests.

The potential defendant has left the state. Sometimes the person who allegedly caused an injury leaves the state at some point after the underlying accident, and before a lawsuit could be filed. In these situations, the time the person spends out of the state of California does not count towards a plaintiff's two-year filing deadline.

If you think you may be entitled to an extension of California's deadline for filing a personal injury lawsuit, you should consider discussing your case with an attorney. Remember, though, that the best approach is to file any lawsuit well before the usual statute of limitations runs out.

(Cal. Civ. Code § 352 (2024); Cal. Civ. Code § 351 (2024); Daley v. Regents of Univ. of Cal., 39 Cal.App.5th 595 (Cal. Ct. App. 2019).)

Get Help With Your Statute of Limitations Questions

California's two-year statute of limitations for personal injury cases may seem straightforward. But, as we've seen, it can be difficult to understand how the state's filing deadlines apply to your situation. If you consult with a local personal injury attorney, they should be able to explain how you can preserve your legal rights, and answer questions about the timing of a potential lawsuit.

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