Both under federal law and in every state, there are time limits for the commencement of lawsuits and other civil actions called "statutes of limitations."  The concept behind statutes of limitations is that after a specified period of time one can no longer commence the action since the matter is stale, the witnesses and evidence hard or impossible to locate, and if there was a real harm, the plaintiff would have brought the action more promptly.  Depending on the type of case or procedure, California's statutes of limitations range from one year to 10 years. The point at which the clock starts ticking typically is the date of the incident or discovery of a wrong.

Statutes can be extended (“tolled”) for various reasons. For example, the statue for a minor to bring an action can be tolled until he or she reaches the age of majority when they are able to commence the action legally. Another example is when the defendant actively sought to delay the action or hide the damage to the point where the court feels that injustice would ensue if the statute of limitations was applied.

But in most instances the courts will strictly enforce the statute of limitations, both to avoid clogging the courts up with ancient disputes and to protect defendants from facing liability many years after the event. Normally the motion to dismiss or demurrer based on the statute of limitations is brought at the very beginning of a case and the court’s rule in favor of application of the statute halts the case at that time. Note that many cases have numerous causes of action and that the statute might be applied to some but not all of the causes of action, leaving the remaining causes of action to proceed to trial.


Typical Statutes of Limitations in California:

1.Injury to Person


Personal injury: 2 yrs. Civ. Proc. §335.1;


False imprisonment: 1 yr. Civ. Proc. §340(c)


Libel/Slander: 1 yr. Civ. Proc. §340(c)


Fraud: 3 yrs. Civ. Proc. §338(d)


2.Injury to Personal Property


3 yrs. Civ. Proc. §338(b), (c)


3.Professional Malpractice


Legal malpractice: 1 yr. from discovery, max. of 4 yrs. from the wrong Civ. Proc. §340.6;


Medical malpractice: 1 yr. from discovery, 3 yrs. if injury known Civ. Proc. §340.5;


Veterinarian malpractice.: 1 yr. for injury or death of animal Civ. Prop. §340(c)




3 yrs. Civ. Proc. §338(b)


5.Collection of Rents (not unlawful detainer)


4 yrs. Civ. Proc. §337.2


6.Breach of Contract


Written contract: 4 yrs. §337;


Oral contract: 2 yrs. Civ. Proc. §339


7.Collection of Debt on Account


4 yrs. (book and stated accounts) Civ. Proc. §337


8.Enforcement of Judgments


10 yrs. Civ. Proc. §337.5 (Possibly renewable if certain steps are taken.)




The basic rule is simple: if you have a claim, act relatively quickly or you will lose the right to seek relief forever. And even if you think you have failed to move quickly enough, it is probably wise to seek legal advice to determine if the statutes may have been tolled in your particular instance.

Note that each state has its own statute of limitations and they can vary widely from state to state.