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Lawsuits & Litigation

Understanding the Statute of Limitations for Car Accident Claims in California

— October 6, 2023

If the defendant or the insurance company knows the statute for your claim has run out, they have absolutely no incentive or reason to negotiate with you.

If you were injured in a car accident in California, you are probably wondering how you can recover, both financially and physically. If someone else was liable for the crash, you may have grounds to bring a claim against them, seeking financial compensation for your damages. Keep in mind that California has a two-year statute of limitations, which is the time limit for filing a car accident claim.  

Knowing what the statute of limitations is and how it affects your injury claim is important. If you miss the deadline, the court can, and likely will, dismiss your claim, and you will lose your right to collect compensation for your damages for good.

If you have questions about the California statute of limitations or your car accident claim, a California car accident lawyer can evaluate your claim and go over how the statute of limitations applies to your case.  

What Is a Statute of Limitations?

Every state has its own statute of limitations. These are laws that limit how much time a person has to file a legal claim with the court. Each state sets its own statutes of limitations laws, and they vary based on the kind of case you are filing.

For instance, the deadline for bringing a personal injury claim, such as a car accident claim, in California is two years from the day the injury occurred. 

These laws are important because they ensure that courts do not become overwhelmed by stale or excessive claims, protect the rights of the accused, and make sure that legal cases are promptly handled.

The statute of limitations is also useful in personal injury matters for the following reasons.

  • Evidence degenerates as time goes by: Most physical evidence, like tire tracks, footprints, and bodily fluids, degrade with the passage of time. This could leave injured victims with no way to prove who was liable and the accused party lacking the evidence they need for their defense.
  • Eyewitnesses forget important details: When it comes to personal injury claims, witness statements carry a lot of clout. This is because a witness has nothing to gain from a case’s outcome. If, however, you take too long to file, they have often forgotten vital details about the accident, paving the way for a potentially unjust legal outcome.

When Does the Statue Begin Running?

Clock face; image by Age Barros, via
Clock face; image by Age Barros, via

In most car accident cases, the clock on the statute of limitations begins ticking on the day of the crash. From there, the actual deadline will depend on the specific facts of your case.

  • Bodily injury: Car accidents come under the umbrella of tort law. When an accident causes injuries, plaintiffs have two years from the day of the incident to bring a claim against the at-fault driver. 
  • Wrongful death: If a car accident results in a fatality, the representative of the deceased’s estate or their surviving family members have two years from the day of the victim’s passing to file a claim of wrongful death. 

Exceptions to the Statute 

Although two years is generally the deadline for filing a car accident claim in California, there are a few exceptions that could extend or shorten the amount of time you have to take legal action.

If the accident was the result of a failure to maintain city or state roadways, you may have a valid claim against a government agency. However, the statute of limitations for bringing a claim for government negligence is just six short months. So, if you intend to hold the relevant agency accountable, you need to get to work as soon as possible.

By comparison, there are instances when the California statute of limitations may be extended, such as: 

  • When a minor is involved: If someone under the age of 18 is injured in a car accident, the statute will not begin to run until the victim reaches the age of majority.  
  • The plaintiff lacks mental capacity: When the victim is considered mentally incompetent, the statute will be delayed until they regain capacity pursuant to the law.

Since the California statute of limitations can vary considerably depending on the circumstances of your accident, it is crucial to speak with a California car accident attorney to understand your deadline for taking legal action.

What Is the Discovery Rule?

Not everyone shows immediate symptoms of a car accident injury, and not all delayed-onset injuries are minor. Internal bleeding and traumatic brain injuries are two potentially lethal examples of common car accident injuries with symptoms that usually take a while to manifest. 

When a delayed-onset injury happens, California’s discovery rule makes it possible for plaintiffs to bring in additional defendants after the statute has been protected. This is not the same as an extension of the statute, but it does allow for the addition of defendants during litigation.  

For instance, the discovery rule could apply to a case if:

  • A faulty vehicle component contributed to an accident, but the plaintiff had no way of discovering or otherwise knowing about the defective part in a timely fashion.
  • The plaintiff showed no obvious symptoms or signs of injury after the accident, even though they were evaluated by a doctor, but later on, developed a condition or injury stemming from the car accident.
  • The plaintiff was unknowingly exposed to hazardous substances because of the accident but did not display immediate symptoms of exposure.

When Do I Need to Start Filing My Claim?

If you do not file your claim until after the relevant statute expires, the defendant can request that the judge dismiss your case, which they most likely will. Once that happens, you will lose your right to receive any financial compensation whatsoever. This is another reason it is so important to take immediate action if you feel you have a valid California car accident claim.

While two years sounds like more than enough time to file a document with the court, a thorough investigation will have to be conducted first. The more complicated your case is, and the more liable parties are involved, the more time your attorney is going to need to build a strong, convincing case.

It is vital to understand the California statute of limitations even if you plan on settling your claim out of court. The fact that you are able to file a lawsuit is your greatest leverage in settlement negotiations. If the defendant or the insurance company knows the statute for your claim has run out, they have absolutely no incentive or reason to negotiate with you.

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