What is a Statute of Limitations, and Why is It Important?

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A statute of limitation is the amount of time a person can take in order to take legal action on a certain event. Every type of claim has a statute of limitation. Therefore, it is important for a person to be aware of their time restriction regardless of whether they are claiming a contract was breached, their property was damaged or an insurance company improperly denied their claim.

The time limits for when criminal charges can be filed are known as criminal statute of limitations. Prosecutors (both federal and state) are forbidden from charging someone with a crime beyond a specified amount of time.

In determining which statute of limitations will control in a civil action, the type of Cause of Action that the claim will be pursued under is critical. States establish different deadlines depending on whether the cause of action involves a contract, personal injury, libel, fraud or other claim.


Statute of Limitations: Overview

Under a legal rule known as the “statute of limitations,” any lawsuit arising from an accident or injury must be filed within a certain time limit or the injured person’s legal claim will be barred and his or her right to sue will be lost forever. Every state has enacted its own statute of limitations, requiring any personal injury suit be filed in court within a set time after the incident or injury.

Statutes of limitations ensure an offending party in any legal dispute is aware that he or she committed or may be accused of committing some wrong against another party. At the same time, the wronged party must decide whether to press a lawsuit in order to recover for his or her wrong. After enough time has passed, the chance to sue disappears.


California Civil Statute of Limitations Laws

A statute of limitations regulates the deadline(s) for filing a lawsuit — the first step in civil litigation. Most civil lawsuits MUST be filed within a certain amount of time. In general, once the statute of limitations on a case “runs out,” the legal claim is not valid any longer. The period of time during which you can file a civil lawsuit varies depending on the type of civil law claim and is typically determined by statute.

Injury to Person: 2 years
False imprisonment: 1 year
Libel/Slander: 1 year
Fraud: 3 years
Injury to Personal Property: 3 years
Professional Malpractice: 1 year from discovery
Trespass: 3 years
Collection of Rents: 4 years
Contracts: Written: 4 years; Oral: 2 years
Collection of Debt on Account: 4 years (book and stated accounts)


California Criminal Statute of Limitations Laws

California’s criminal statute of limitations set the amount of time the government has to prosecute people. If the government doesn’t file charges within the designated time period, the defendant can hold up the statute of limitations as a complete defense.



Murder, other offenses punishable by death or life imprisonment, embezzlement of public funds: none
Offenses punishable by 8 or more years in prison: 6 years
Offenses punishable by imprisonment: 3 years



Most misdemeanors: 1 year
Misdemeanor violation committed on a minor under 14: 3 years
Sexual exploitation by physician or therapist: 2 years


When Does the Time Start?

When a crime unfolds over a period of days, months, or even years, prosecutors and defense attorneys may have conflicting positions about when the statute of limitations started to run or was tolled.

This can be simple in the case of some easily apparent injuries. If you know right away that an injury has occurred, you have the prescribed number of years from your injury to bring a claim. Unfortunately, not every injury is obvious at the outset. Certain conditions may take years to develop, and a victim may not know that the defendant’s product caused their injuries until they investigate the situation further.


The “Discovery of Harm” Rule

If you are injured in a personal injury case, you have a certain amount of time to file any legal actions to pursue compensation for your injuries. However, some injuries do not obviously manifest for weeks or even months, and you may be experiencing complications from an incident that happened well beyond the statute of limitations for your situation. In cases such as this, the concept of “discovery of harm” exists to ensure victims can pursue legal actions against negligent entities even if the statute of limitations has come and gone.

The statute of limitations begins at different times depending on circumstance. This exception typically is seen in medical malpractice cases, in which a person undergoes a medical procedure that was done improperly. However, the injured person may not discover the malpractice until sometime later. The discovery of harm typically applies when the plaintiff becomes aware of the harm done.


Delayed Discovery Rules

  • Pharmaceutical or drug complications: Some people may have reactions from prescribed medications that are not immediately apparent. They may suffer internal damage over time that slowly becomes more severe and painful. They may also develop permanent complications or disabilities from medications that conflict with preexisting conditions, an allergy to the drugs, or have improper dosages.
  • Sexual or psychological abuse cases: Victims of childhood molestation are increasingly seeking redress from their abusers by filing civil tort actions to recover for their physical and psychological injuries. One reason for the surge in civil filings may be the lack of willingness, or ability, on the part of the criminal justice system to prosecute the abuser, or to provide adequate relief to the victims.
  • Increased susceptibility to further injury: Sometimes a slight injury can increase the victim’s susceptibility to more serious harm. An example may be a drug that diminishes the victim’s immune system, increasing his or her vulnerability to serious diseases or the inability to fully heal from injuries or fight off infection.
  • Traumatic brain injuries: It is not uncommon for symptoms of a brain injury to be delayed. In general, if you are in an accident that involves any sort of impact to the head, even a minor impact, you should get immediate medical attention. Often, immediate medical attention is necessary to establish the causal connection between the brain injury and the accident that caused it. While you may not be thinking about a lawsuit at the time of an accident, for many people a lawsuit is the only way they are able to pay all their medical bills and out-of-pocket expenses after a serious accident.


Time to Talk to a Lawyer

Statutes of limitations are confusing to say the least. Plus, the same conduct can be the basis for multiple criminal charges, meaning that more than one limitations period could apply. Consult a knowledgeable attorney to understand how the statutes of limitations apply in a specific case.

If you or a loved one is involved in a potential personal injury lawsuit, please contact our Personal Injury Attorneys at 1-877-241-9554 to learn more about your legal options. A free consultation is just a phone call away.

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