California Personal Injury Laws and Liability Rules

Time limits to file a personal injury lawsuit in California, the state's "pure comparative negligence" rule, and more.

By , J.D., University of San Francisco School of Law

In California, as in every state, a personal injury case can arise from almost any kind of incident that was caused by negligence or other wrongful conduct. That includes a car accident, a slip and fall, or a doctor's medical malpractice, to name just a few examples.

Whether you're making an injury-related insurance claim, or you're headed to court to file a personal injury lawsuit, several California laws could have a big impact on your case.

What Is the Personal Injury Statute of Limitations in California?

All states set limits on the amount of time you have to file a lawsuit in civil court after you've suffered some type of harm. This kind of law is called a statute of limitations, and there are different deadlines depending on the kind of case you're filing.

In California, the statute of limitations for personal injury cases gives you two years to go to court and file a lawsuit against those who could be at fault for your injury. In most situations, the "clock" starts on the date of the accident or other incident that led to your injury.

What If I Miss the California Statute of Limitations Deadline?

If you fail to file a personal injury lawsuit within this two-year period, the court will likely refuse to hear your case, and you'll lose your right to ask any court for a legal remedy for the harm you've suffered. This is obviously a harsh result, and it illustrates the importance of understanding and complying with statute of limitations deadline.

Can the Statute of Limitations Be Extended In California?

There are are few relatively rare situations that might extend the deadline or affect when the statute of limitations "clock" starts to run in California, including when:

  • the plaintiff (the person filing the lawsuit) was under 18 or was lacking the proper legal capacity to make decisions at the time of the accident (California Code of Civil Procedure section 352), or
  • the defendant (the person being sued) left the state of California at some point after the plaintiff's injury, and before the lawsuit could be filed (California Code of Civil Procedure section 351).

Does the California Statute of Limitations Apply to Insurance Claims?

No. The deadline only applies to cases filed in court. You'll almost certainly start any injury-related insurance claim within a few weeks or a few months of your accident. But it's always important to have the statute of limitations deadline in the back of your mind.

You want to leave yourself plenty of time to go to court and file a lawsuit if you need to—even if you're confident that your insurance claim will reach a fair settlement. At the very least, preserving the option to go to court and file a lawsuit will give you more leverage during injury settlement talks.

All the relevant details on the California statute of limitations for personal injury cases can be found at California Code of Civil Procedure section 335.1.

How Do I File a California Personal Injury Lawsuit?

Your personal injury lawsuit will almost certainly be filed in one of California's "superior" (or trial) courts, which have jurisdiction over all civil trials in the state. Chances are, you'll file in the courthouse that's in the California county where the person you're suing lives, or where your injury occurred.

Your California personal injury lawsuit will start with the filing of:

  • a "complaint" that lays out your claims against the person or business you're suing (the defendant), and includes a request for compensation for your injuries and related losses, and
  • a "summons" that lets the defendant know they're being sued.

Check out the Complaint-Personal Injury and Summons forms from the California Courts website.

What If My Injury Involved Government Negligence In California?

Injury claims involving the potential liability of the government—whether a city, county or California state government agency—will need to play by a unique set of rules. There is usually a time limit of six months to file an injury claim against a government entity, and claimants must adhere to a strict set of procedural rules. See California Government Code section 911.2 for the details, and learn more about injury claims against a government entity.

What If I'm Partly at Fault for My Injury In California?

In some personal injury cases, the defendant may make the argument that the injured person is actually to blame (at least partially) for causing the underlying accident. If you do share some level of liability, it can end up affecting the total amount of compensation you can receive from other at-fault parties.

In shared fault injury cases, California follows a "pure comparative negligence" rule. In basic terms, the amount of compensation you're entitled to receive will be reduced by an amount that equals your percentage of fault for the accident.

How Does California's Pure Comparative Negligence Rule Work?

Let's say you're in a car accident where the other driver blatantly ran a stop sign, but you happened to be driving a few miles an hour above the posted speed limit at the time. You might share 10 percent of the blame for the accident, while the other driver is 90 percent at fault. Let's say your losses (damages) add up to $10,000. How does your shared fault for the accident impact your compensation? Under California's pure comparative negligence rule, your compensation will be reduced to $9,000 (or the $10,000 total minus the $1,000 that represents your share of fault for the accident.)

Will the California Comparative Negligence Rule Affect My Insurance Claim?

Keep in mind that, while courts in California are obligated to follow the state's comparative negligence rule in an injury lawsuit that makes it to trial, it may be a different story if you're dealing with an insurance adjuster outside the court system.

Don't be surprised if the adjuster raises the issue of California's comparative negligence rule during settlement talks. But remember that you're free to negotiate the applicability and impact of that rule when it comes to the value of your personal injury claim.

Learn more about shared fault in personal injury cases.

When Are California Dog Owners Liable for Bite Injuries?

In California, a specific statute (California Civil Code section 3342) can be used to hold a dog owner "strictly liable" when their animal bites someone, meaning little or no fault or negligence needs to be shown in order to hold the owner responsible for resulting injuries and related losses. Learn more about California's dog bite laws and owner liability.

Does California Have a Personal Injury Damages Cap?

There's no universal cap on the amount of compensation (damages) a personal injury plaintiff can receive in court after a successful lawsuit. But here's a look at a few California laws that set limitations on the amounts (or types) of damages that are recoverable in certain kinds of cases and situations.

No "Pain and Suffering" Damages for Uninsured Drivers In California

California law prevents most uninsured drivers from recovering "non-economic" damages after a car accident, even if the other driver is completely at fault for the accident. You'll find this law at California Civil Code section 3333.4. Learn more about pain and suffering damages in personal injury cases.

One key exception to this rule: The uninsured driver will be able to recover non-economic losses in a lawsuit if:

  • the accident was caused by a driver who was operating a vehicle while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and
  • that driver was convicted of DUI in connection with the accident.

California's MICRA Cap on Non-Economic Damages in Medical Malpractice Cases

Another key California law that places a limit on certain kinds of damages is the Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act (MICRA), which places a $350,000 cap on non-economic damages in most medical malpractice cases (the cap is slated to increase each year). You can find this rule at California Civil Code section 3333.2. Learn more about California medical malpractice laws.

Get More Information on California Personal Injury Laws

If you'd like more information on California's personal injury laws, feel free to do a little legal research of your own. You might want to start with California Civil Code section 1714, which provides the statutory basis for negligence-based injury actions in the state. You can also learn more about:

If you're looking for legal advice that's tailored to your situation, you might want to discuss your potential case with a personal injury lawyer.

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