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California injury victims who have suffered harm caused by another person or business can seek compensation by bringing a lawsuit against the responsible party. However, the injury victim will lose that opportunity if the lawsuit is not filed within the time permitted by California law.

The deadline for filing a lawsuit is determined by the applicable statute of limitations. Those statutes are enacted by the California legislature. They are meant to assure that legal claims are brought to court before evidence becomes stale. As time passes, memories become less reliable and witnesses are more difficult to find. In addition, the legal system has long recognized that people who are responsible for injuries should not experience prolonged anxiety as they wait to see if they will be sued.

Different deadlines apply to different kinds of lawsuits. The deadlines that apply in California are often different from those that apply in other states.


Limitations Periods

The time during which a lawsuit can be filed is known as the “limitations period.” If a lawsuit is not filed within the applicable limitations period, the injury victim will usually lose the right to bring a claim for compensation in court.

Determining the applicable limitations period is not always easy. The facts of the case, as well as facts about the victim, must be assessed to determine which limitations period applies. Injury victims should consult a personal injury attorney as soon as possible to avoid losing the right to file a lawsuit due to the expiration of the limitations period.

Only the lawyer who represents you can advise you about the limitations period that applies to your case. This article provides some general information about California limitations periods, but it is no substitute for legal advice. Every case is different and all the facts must be assessed to determine which statute of limitations applies to your injury.


Personal Injuries

Injuries caused in traffic accidents and injuries caused by hazardous property conditions are usually the result of someone’s negligence. In the case of collisions, the negligent party is a driver. In the case of a hazardous condition, the negligent party is usually a business or property owner. Sometimes injuries are caused by defective products. Those are usually the responsibility of the manufacturer or seller.

Bodily injuries and emotional distress caused by negligence or product defects are known as personal injuries. In most cases, the limitations period for filing a personal injury lawsuit in California is 2 years. The same limitations period applies if the injuries result in death.

The 2-year period generally begins on the day the accident occurred. If the injury is not immediately apparent, however, the 2-year period might begin on the day the injury is (or should have been) discovered. Injury victims should consult a personal injury attorney as soon as they realize they suffered an injury due to an accident or product defect.

Accident victims may be entitled to a longer limitations period if they are suing their own insurance company to recover the benefits of uninsured or underinsured motorist coverage. Victims should obtain legal advice to determine the applicable limitations period.


Medical Malpractice

When a doctor commits malpractice, the injury is not always obvious. The failure to diagnose a disease, for example, might not be discovered until the disease is correctly diagnosed. In those cases, the patient can bring a malpractice lawsuit within 1 year after the malpractice is (or should have been) discovered. However, the limitations period usually expires 3 years after the injury occurs, even if it is not discovered.

There are exceptions to the 3-year period, primarily involving medical professionals who deliberately conceal or lie about their malpractice. A longer limitations period may also apply when a surgeon leaves a foreign object inside the patient’s body. A victim of a healthcare provider’s negligence should contact a personal injury attorney immediately after learning of (or suspecting) medical malpractice.


Property Damage

The limitations period to bring a claim for property damage caused by another person’s negligence is usually 3 years. Although a collision victim usually has 2 years to bring a lawsuit for personal injuries and 3 years to bring a lawsuit for damage to the victim’s car, the law usually requires claims against the same party arising out of the same accident to be brought in the same lawsuit. The personal injury limitations period does not become longer simply because the lawsuit includes a property damage claim.

Accident victims who are seeking reimbursement for property damage from their own insurance company have 4 years to bring a claim in court. That’s because a longer limitations period applies to lawsuits based on contracts. An insurance policy that provides for collision or comprehensive coverage is a contract.


Special Cases

Different rules may apply when the injury victim is a minor, suffers from a mental infirmity, is unable to being a lawsuit because of a disability, or in certain other cases. Different rules may also apply when a city, county, or government agency is guilty of negligence.

Since determining the applicable limitations period is not always easy, injury victims should not guess. Injury victims should always consult a personal injury attorney immediately to be certain that they do not lose their opportunity to recover compensation.