The process of physically, emotionally, and financially recovering after a car accident can be long and strenuous.
If you plan to file a lawsuit to aid in your recovery, don’t let the California car accident statute of limitations prevent you from collecting a valuable damages award.
In general, the statute of limitations for a car accident in California places a two-year deadline on filing a personal injury claim.
Car accidents happen. In 2021, police reported 6,102,936 motor vehicle traffic crashes nationwide.
The number of licensed drivers in California has risen 12% in the last ten years, and so has your likelihood of being seriously injured on the road.
In 2020, the California Office of Traffic Safety reported 15,373 traffic accidents resulting in serious injury.
If you find yourself counted among these numbers, it is important to understand how to file a personal injury lawsuit before time runs out.
What Is a Statute of Limitations?
A statute of limitations is a procedural law restricting the amount of time allowed for a claimant to file a lawsuit. Imagine a statute of limitations as a countdown timer on a sports play.
Once the clock reads zeros, the action stops. In a California car accident claim, the countdown starts with two years on the clock, typically starting the day the accident occurs.
Statutes of limitations are designed to ensure:
- Plaintiffs file suits in a timely manner,
- Evidence does not get lost or forgotten, and
- Potential defendants are not indefinitely threatened by legal action.
Time limits imposed by these laws vary across states and depend on the specific cause of action such as personal injury, fraud, theft, or property damage.
What Events Start and Stop the Timer?
Continue to imagine a sports play clock. The numbers start going down when a referee blows the whistle to begin play. So what “blows the whistle” on the California car accident statute of limitations? Your clock may start:
- The date the accident takes place. In most cases, the statute starts counting down the day of the car accident.
- The date you discover an injury. After a collision, it’s possible for an injury to not be detectable right away. The delayed discovery rule may apply if you are late to realize you have a legal claim. Under this rule, the statute of limitations for a California car accident begins on the date you discover, or you reasonably should have discovered, you have a claim.
- The date the accident causes a death. In the unfortunate event the accident causes fatal injury, the deceased person’s loved ones will have two years from the date of death to begin a civil action for wrongful death. This date will be later than the date of the accident if the deceased did not immediately succumb to their injuries.
The statute of limitations clock stops when you commence legal action by filing a complaint with the court.
Are There Exceptions to the Rule?
There are limited circumstances when the court will extend or pause the countdown clock on the statute of limitations.
“Tolling” the statute of limitations means to temporarily suspend, or pause, the countdown clock. Think of a timeout in sports. A party may toll the statute of limitations if:
- The claimant is a minor. Someone under the age of 18 does not have the legal ability to file a lawsuit. If the collision injures a minor, their statute of limitations clock starts counting down on their 18th birthday.
- The claimant is legally incapacitated. If someone is legally incompetent to make decisions, the statute of limitations will toll until their disability is resolved. For example, if the claimant is in a coma after the accident, they would have two years from the time they recover from the coma to file their claim.
- A defendant leaves the state. The countdown to the deadline will pause if the defendant leaves the state. The clock will start again once the defendant returns.
The statute of limitations may be tolled multiple times if the defendant continues to travel in and out of the state. Calculating the paused time can be a complicated task without the help of an attorney.
Property Damage Only
Luckily, not all car accidents cause injuries. You are still able to file a claim for damage to your vehicle even if you did not get hurt during the accident.
You have a longer amount of time to file a claim if you only wish to pursue compensation for property damage. The California car accident statute of limitations for property damage is three years.
Accidents Involving Government Entities
Special rules apply when you want to file a personal injury claim against a government employee acting in the scope of their job duties.
When you get into an accident with vehicles such as city buses, fire trucks, snow plows, or police cars, the California Tort Claims Act demands you file a notice of claim with the responsible government entity within six months.
The court strictly enforces the complex rules for suing government employees. Having an experienced attorney on your side increases your odds of a successful lawsuit.
What Happens If I Run Out of Time?
If you fail to file your complaint within the two-year California car accident statute of limitations time frame, the court will likely dismiss your case. When you miss the deadline, you lose your opportunity to recover damages.
What If I Still Have Questions?
Despite the useful analogy, car accident claims are not a game.
Understanding the California car accident statute of limitations is not an easy thing to do, and the potential consequences of getting it wrong are severe. Do not risk the court dismissing your case because you failed to file a complaint on time.
When we represent a client, we take up a strong offense. We are not afraid to go to the mat to get you fair compensation. You can trust we will not give up before the last buzzer sounds.
Disclaimer: this content should not be construed as legal advice.