There are five situations when there is a tolling of the statute of limitations in a California personal injury case. These are when the plaintiff is:
Note too, that in reaction to COVID-19, California’s Judicial Council adopted and recently amended emergency rule 9. The rule essentially tolls the statutes of limitations on all civil causes of action (which include personal injury actions).
A “statute of limitations” is a legal term meaning the period of time a person has to bring a lawsuit. If a party brings a claim after the limitations period expires, then the claim will likely be dismissed, per California Code of Civil Procedure Section 335.1.
“Tolling” provisions work to stop or temporarily suspend the statute of limitations period.
California law states that the statute of limitations for most personal injury claims is two years from the date of the injury. The two-year period starts to run when the plaintiff knows, or reasonably should know, of the injury.
What is a statute of limitations?
A California statute of limitations is a deadline by which a lawsuit or civil cause of action must be filed. State law says that once the limitations period has run, or expired, a plaintiff can no longer sue for compensatory damages.1
The general statute of limitations in a California personal injury case is two years from the date of the injury.2
This two-year period applies to such injury cases that involve:
Note that medical malpractice cases are an exception to the general two-year limitations rule. In general, the statute of limitations for these cases in three-years from the date of injury.3
In contrast, note that the statute of limitations for actions involving a written contract vary from one to four years.4
When is the statute of limitations tolled?
Sometimes the statute of limitations is suspended or does not begin running for a certain period of time. This is known as “tolling.”
A limitations time period may be tolled when the defendant is:
- a minor, or under the age of 18,
- out of the state,
- in prison,
- legally insane
Once the condition leading to tolling has ended, then the tolling period ends as well, and the statute of limitations begins to run or resumes.
Consider, for example, a case where a parent dies in a work-related accident and is survived by a 15-year-old daughter. The daughter wishes to file a wrongful death claim under California Code of Civ. Procedure 377.60 CCP.
Here, since the daughter is a minor, the statute of limitations is tolled, or stopped, until she turns 18 years of age. Once she turns 18, then the limitations period begins, and she must file a claim before turning 20 years of age.
Cases involving tolling can be quite complicated. It is highly recommended that people get legal advice from personal injury law firms to determine whether they can still sue. An experienced injury attorney will be able to inform when a party must file a claim.
What is emergency rule 9?
Emergency rule 9 refers to a collection of court rules recently adopted in California that work to toll certain cases due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
On April 6, 2020, the California State Judicial Council adopted emergency rule 9 to suspend statutes of limitation on all civil cases in California court until 90 days after the Governor lifted the state of emergency related to coronavirus.
In May of this year, the Judicial Council of California amended rule 9 so that it was no longer tied to the state of emergency declaration.
The amended rule will restart statutes of limitations on set dates, and will:
- suspend all statutes of limitations for civil causes of action (typically filed in Superior Court) from April 6 to October 1, provided that they exceed 180 days, or
- suspend all statutes of limitations, for civil causes of action from April 6 to August 3, provided that they involve a time period of 180 days or less.
Note that emergency rule 9 is broad in scope, especially after the Judicial Council amends it. It applies to all civil causes of action, even those brought under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
What is the discovery rule?
The discovery rule provides for a type of equitable tolling.
The rule applies when either:
- the plaintiff did not know of facts that would have caused a reasonable person to suspect that he or she had suffered harm that was caused by someone’s wrongful conduct, or
- a reasonable and good faith investigation would not have disclosed that a harmful product or situation contributed to the plaintiff’s harm.5
When the rule applies, it works to delay the statute of limitations, and a plaintiff can file a claim as late as one year after the injury was (or should have been) discovered.
Why is there a statute of limitations?
Statutes of limitations exist out of a sense of fundamental fairness. Memories fade, evidence is inadvertently destroyed, and witnesses move away. If there were no limits to bringing an action, it is quite possible that a claimant could win a lawsuit with truly little legitimate support.
Similarly, a limitations period both:
- encourages plaintiffs to diligently pursue their claims, and
- protects people from having to defend “stale” claims.6
- California Code of Civil Procedure 335.1 CCP.
- See same.
- California Code of Civil Procedure 340.5 CCP.
- See, e.g., California Code of Civil Procedure 337 CCP.
- California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) 45.
- See, e.g., Jolly v. Eli Lilly (1988) 44 Cal.3d 1103.