When I was in high school, I remember there was a clock over the door in our Latin Class. Beneath it was the inscription, "Time will pass. Will you?" I always get a chuckle when I think of it. In the legal world, when time passes so can your rights to sue if you do not take timely action.
The laws governing when a suit must be filed are called statutes of limitations. A statute of limitations is the limited amount of time one has to file a lawsuit for a claim. The time periods for different type claims will vary. Statutes of limitations may be as short as six months, or as long as four years or more years, depending on the type of claim that you have.
General Statute of Limitations for Personal Injury Claims
This article will discuss in general terms, the statutes of limitations as they pertain to personal injury claims. For a typical personal injury claim, such as an automobile accident, slip and fall, dog bite, or product liability claim, the statute of limitations is two years. This does not include claims against governments, hospitals, or other public entities, where a shorter time period applies (See my article on filing claims against public agencies), nor does it apply to medical malpractice/negligence cases. This means that a lawsuit must be filed within two years of the date of your injury occurring or your claim will be barred by law (Code of Civil Procedure 335.1).
While normally a personal injury lawsuit or suit for wrongful death must be filed within two years of the date of the injury or death, there are numerous exceptions which may extend the statute. The legal term for this is the "tolling" of the statute.
A claim does not originate legally until someone has knowledge of the negligent act which causes their harm. The "discovery rule" postpones the accrual of a cause of action until the injured party discovers or has reason to discover the cause of action. For the purposes of this rule, the plaintiff discovers the cause of action when he or she at least suspects a factual basis for the claim. Simply put, the injured party need not know there is a legal basis for the claim, but rather suspects that someone has done something wrong to him. An example of this would be where someone has been exposed to a toxic material, but did learn that his medical problem was related to the previous exposure until a much later time. This was the cases for thousands of shipyard workers who worked around asbestos products. They did not learn of the dangers of asbestos for thirty to forty years after exposure to the toxic material. Due to the discovery rule, however, these workers did not lose their rights to sue the asbestos manufacturers. More recently in the news, there have been reports related to the Gulf Oil Spill, that clean up crew workers are experiencing a variety of late developing health problems associated with the dispersant Corexit.
If someone is incapacitated, the statute of limitations is tolled for the time period of the incapacity. Incapacity generally means that a person is incapable of caring for his or her property or transacting business, or understanding the nature or effects of his or her acts. This may come up in the case of an elderly person who suffers from dementia, or where someone has a severe injury which affects their cognitive abilities.
The statue of limitations does not start running for a minor until he turns age 18. Therefore, generally speaking a minor has until age 20 to file a general personal injury lawsuit, before the claim is barred by the statute of limitations.
Different type cases will have different statutes. As an Alameda personal injury attorney, I understand the complexity of the statute of limitations for different type claims. As mentioned earlier, claims against public agencies, and governmental entities have their own unique claim system. Medical malpractice action also have their own statutes of limitations. Therefore, it is alway the best practice to consult an attorney as soon as you suspect that an injury has been caused by someone else. However, if a substantial period of time has lapsed since the initial accrual of the claim, then it is extremely important to investigate whether any tolling provisions in the code apply to your claim.