How long do I have to file a car accident lawsuit in California?

How California's statute of limitations for car accident lawsuits could affect your case.

If you’re thinking about filing a lawsuit after a car accident in California, this is one of the most important questions to consider.

In every state, the amount of time you have to file a lawsuit is governed by a law known as a “statute of limitations.” There are different deadlines depending on the kind of case you want to file.

In California, more than one deadline could come into play when it comes to your car accident lawsuit, depending on the circumstances of the crash.

If you were injured in a vehicle accident -- whether as a driver, a passenger, a motorcyclist, a bicyclist, or a pedestrian -- the statute of limitations for your California lawsuit is the same as the larger one that applies to all personal injury cases filed in the state’s civil court system. Specifically, California Code of Civil Procedure section 335.1 gives you two years to file “an action for...injury to, or for the death of, an individual caused by the wrongful act or neglect of another.” (Note: In this context, “neglect” is the same as “negligence,” which is the legal basis for proving fault in most car accident cases.)

That same two-year deadline applies if you are filing a lawsuit on behalf of a loved one -- or because of your own losses resulting from the death of a loved one -- after a car accident.

For car accidents lawsuits over car accident injuries versus lawsuits over someone’s death, one potential difference when it comes to California’s two-year filing deadline is that the “clock” starts running on the date of the accident for injury cases. But for a wrongful death case against the at-fault driver, the “clock” starts on the date of the death, if it is different from the date of the accident.

Finally, if your lawsuit is limited to vehicle damage claim, California Code of Civil Procedure section 338 gives you three years to get it filed. And as with injury-based lawsuits, for a lawsuit over vehicle damage that three-year “clock” starts ticking on the date of the accident.

It’s important to have the California statute of limitations deadline in mind for a number of reasons, the most important of which is that if you try to file your lawsuit after the deadline has passed, the person you’re trying to sue will almost certainly ask the court to dismiss the case. And the court will almost certainly grant that request, unless your case falls under one of the rare exceptions that will pause or “toll” the running of the clock.

It’s also important to have the statute of limitations deadline in mind even if you don’t think you’re going to file a lawsuit over a car accident. Even during the insurance claim process, you always want to have the threat of filing a lawsuit as a bargaining chip during settlement talks with the insurance adjuster -- not to mention that if the adjuster knows that the two-year deadline is approaching, he or she may try to stall things deliberately. So make sure you leave yourself plenty of time under the applicable California statute of limitations, and keep all of your options open for getting compensation after a car accident.

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