What Are the Statutes of Limitations in California Car Accident Lawsuits?

When someone is injured or killed in a car accident caused by a negligent driver, that driver may be sued for civil damages. But there are strict time limits to bring such lawsuits. In legal terms this is known as a “statute of limitations.”

A statute of limitations reflects the maximum time that may pass before a particular type of legal claim is barred. After the applicable limitations period expires, a court is required to dismiss an untimely claim, regardless of the merits. To put it another way, it does not matter how much evidence you have of the defendant’s negligence–if the plaintiff files their lawsuit even one day after the statute of limitations expires, the case is dead on arrival in court.

In California, the statute of limitations is two years when it comes to any lawsuit arising from “injury to, or for the death of, an individual caused by the wrongful act or neglect of another.” This includes just about any personal injury or wrongful death claims arising from a car accident. In this context, the use of the word “neglect” means the same thing as “negligence,” which is the basis for most personal injury lawsuits.

When Does the Limitations Period Begin?

The general rule is that the “clock” on the statute of limitations does not start to run until the plaintiff discovers–or should have discovered through reasonable efforts–when they might have a legal claim against the defendant. In some types of personal injury cases, this starting point is not always immediately clear. For example, if you are a victim of medical malpractice, you may not learn your doctor did anything wrong until weeks or months after the negligent act occurred.

But with respect to personal injury cases arising from car accidents, the limitations period is typically much easier to define: It begins on the date of the accident. So let’s say there is a car accident on May 1, 2019. Any persons injured in that accident would have until May 1, 2021 to file a personal injury lawsuit.

Now this assumes the victims did not die as a result of their accident-related injuries. If the victim has died, then the statute of limitations works a bit differently. Instead of the victim filing a personal injury lawsuit directly, their family can bring a wrongful death action against the negligent parties. Wrongful death lawsuits are still subject to a two-year statute of limitations–but the clock does not start to run until the date of death.

Consider a scenario where an accident victim sustains serious injuries but does immediately pass away. To modify the above hypothetical example slightly, the car accident occurs on May 1, 2019. The victim is hospitalized and holds on for two weeks before ultimately succumbing to their injuries on May 15, 2019. If the family decides they want to file a wrongful death lawsuit, they would have until May 15, 2021, under California’s statute of limitations.

Tolling Period for Minors

If a minor is injured in a car accident, the statute of limitations is tolled or delayed until they reach the age of 18. Tolling means the clock is effectively stopped during the time the victim is still a minor. Basically, when a minor is the victim the statute of limitations is their 20th birthday, regardless of when the accident actually took place.

Limitations Period for Property Damage Claims

The two-year statute of limitations is specific to personal injury claims. If you want to sue a negligent driver solely for damage done to your property, such as your car, then a different rule applies. California has a longer, three-year limitations period for such cases.

Personal Injury Claims Against the Government

Up to this point, we have been discussing personal injury claims involving private parties. But what if the negligent driver who caused your accident worked for the government? Contrary to what you might think, it is possible to sue the government for civil damages. However, you need to follow special rules.

The reason for this is a historic principle of American law known as “sovereign immunity.” Stated simply, you are not allowed to sue a sovereign entity–such as the State of California–in its own courts without its permission. This sovereign immunity extends to all agencies and political subdivisions, such as the City of Los Angeles, and their employees when acting in their official capacities.

At the same time, a state law known as the California Tort Claims Act (CTCA) does provide a waiver of sovereign immunity in cases where a plaintiff alleges they were injured as the result of negligence by state employees or independent contractors. The CTCA has its own, much stricter deadlines for filing a claim.

Actually, before a person can even file a lawsuit under the CTCA, they must first file a notice of claim directly with the state agency whose employee allegedly caused the accident. This notice must be filed within six months of the date of the accident. This six-month deadline functions much like the statute of limitations; if you send the notice even one day late, you are out of luck.

The purpose of the notice is to give the state a chance to review your claim and possibly agree to pay it. If the claim is rejected, however, then you can file a lawsuit. Depending on the form of the rejection, a limitation period of either six months or two years will apply to bringing such a lawsuit.

Speak with a Los Angeles Car Accident Lawyer Before It Is Too Late

Two years may sound like more than enough time to file a personal injury lawsuit. But keep in mind, the two-year clock does not stop to allow you time to investigate an accident or negotiate a possible settlement with the negligent driver or their insurance company. The other side is usually aware that time is ticking away for you to act, which can prompt unnecessary delays.

The best way to protect yourself in these situations is to contact an experienced Los Angeles personal injury attorney who can offer you timely legal advice and representation. Contact Fisher & Talwar today to schedule a consultation. We represent auto accident victims throughout Southern California, including in Anaheim, Glendale, Compton, Long Beach, and Pasadena.