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What is the Statute of Limitations?

A “statute of limitations” (SOL) are laws that tell you how much time you have to file a lawsuit. Once the time expires, a court will not allow a lawsuit to proceed on the matter if the SOL defense is raised.  This article discusses when the SOL time period starts (accrues) under California law.

Why are there Statute of Limitations?

Civil statutes of limitations protect defendants from having to defend stale claims due to lack of diligence by plaintiffs [See Davies v. Krasna (1975) 14 Cal. 3d 502, 512]

SOL are "designed to promote justice by preventing surprises through the revival of claims that have been allowed to slumber until evidence has been lost, memories have faded, and witnesses have disappeared. (See Adams v. Paul (1995) 11 Cal. 4th 583, 592).

When does the limitations time clock start running?  

Generally, the SOL begins after two things happen:

1.    The wrongdoing occurs; and

2.    The wrongdoing causes harm.

Immediately after all of these things happen, the SOL clock starts to run (accrues).

Wrongdoing: A legally enforceable duty (or promise) is violated (breached, broken).

Harm: Damages, injuries legally allowed to be recovered for the specific type of wrongdoing.

Causation: A significant or substantial connection (nexus) between the duty and the harm.

But what if I know that someone’s wrongdoing caused me harm, but I do not know who did the wrongdoing?

The statute of limitations begins to run anyway.  If the SOL is about to run, and you don’t know who did the wrong, file the lawsuit and name the wrongdoer as a “DOE” defendant.

How do I calculate the statute of limitations?

1. Determine the type(s) of wrongdoing that happened to you.

2. Determine when the wrong and the harm actually happened to you.

3. Find out what the statute of limitations is for each of the wrongs.  Different wrongs (called “cause of actions”) can have different SOLs.  See Statute of Limitations

4. If it appears that the SOL has run, look for exceptions that toll (delay the time clock) or lengthen the SOL.   See Exceptions to Statute of Limitations 

Hint: It is generally better settle a claim in full or file a lawsuit before the SOL using the general SOL calculation rule rather an exception.   Exceptions can sometimes be difficult to prove.

Example #1:

On February 1, 2008, John and Mark enter a written loan contract in California whereby John loaned Mark $1000 payable in 10 monthly installments of $100.  Mark pays the first two installments.   But he does not pay the third installment which was due on May 1, 2008, and never paid any more money.  Mark broke his promise and breached the contract (i.e. wrongdoing), and John suffered harm (no payment).  The statute of limitations time clock begins on May 1, 2008 because both the wrongdoing and harm started on that date.  California has a 4 year SOL on a breach of written contract cause of action.  Accordingly, unless an exception applies, the SOL deadline occurs on May 1, 2012 (5/1/2008 to 5/1/2012 = 4 years).

Example #2:

On March 21, 2010, Jane is stopped in car at a red light.  Mary does not notice that the light is red or that Jane’s car is stopped, and crashes her car into the rear of Jane’s car.  Jane’s car is damaged and she suffers physical injury.  Mary breached her duty of reasonable care, was therefore negligent (i.e. wrongdoing), and Jane suffered harm (property damage and physical injuries).  The statute of limitations time clock begins on March 21, 2010.  California has a negligence 3 year SOL on property damage and a two year SOL for personal injury.  Accordingly, unless an exception applies, the SOL deadline runs on March 21, 2013 for the property damage and March 21, 2012 for the personal injuries.

Example #3:

On June 1, 2009, Grocery Co. produce dept. employee Jim drops a banana on the floor and does not pick it up, creating a dangerous condition to others (wrongdoing).  The next day, June 2, 2009, Kim slips on the banana, injuring herself (harm).  The statute of limitations time clock begins on June 2, 2009.  California has a negligence 2 year SOL on for personal injury.  Accordingly, unless an exception applies, the SOL deadline runs on June 2, 2011.


In general, civil action statute of limitations only begin (commence) “after the cause of action shall have accrued ...." Code of Civil Procedure 312

The applicable statute of limitations does not begin to run until the cause of action accrues, that is, " 'until the party owning it is entitled to begin and prosecute an action thereon.' " (Spear v. California State Auto. Assn. (1992) 2 Cal.4th 1035, 1040. 

When does a cause of action accrue?

Generally, in "ordinary tort and contract actions," the limitations period begins when the "last essential element to the cause of action" occurs. (Neel v. Magana, Olney, Levy, Cathcart and Gelfand (1971) 6 Cal.3d 176, 187; Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. v. City of La Habra (2001); Norgart v. Upjohn Co. (1999) 21 Cal.4th 383, 397 25 Cal.4th 809, 815; Fox v. Ethicon Endo-Surgery, Inc. (2005) 35 Cal.4th 797, 806).  even if the Plaintiff was ignorant thereof, and even if he or she did not know the identity of the wrongdoer (Neal, supra.,  at p. 187, and see Gale v. McDaniel (1887) 72 Cal. 334, 335.

Aggrieved parties generally need not know the exact manner in which their injuries were "effected, nor the identities of all parties who may have played a role therein." (Teitelbaum v. Borders (1962) 206 Cal.App.2d 634, 639.

Since a cause of action accrues when the elements of the cause of action, including damage, occur (Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. v. City of La Habra, supra, 25 Cal.4th 809, 815), the “appreciable and actual harm” that results in accrual must be harm of the specific type that is recoverable as damages on that type of cause of action. (Zamora v. Shell Oil Co. (1997) 55 Cal.App.4th 204, 209–210 [63 Cal. Rptr. 2d 762].)

Generally speaking, a cause of action accrues at "the time when the cause of action is complete with all of its elements.”  “An exception to the general rule for defining the accrual of a cause of action—indeed, the ‘most important’ one—is the [delayed] discovery rule.” (Norgart v. Upjohn Co. (1999) 21 Cal.4th 383, 397).

Wrongful death cause of actions normally accrue on the date of death.   See article: Wrongful Death Statute of Limitations.

Statutes of limitations can be tolled (suspended, longer) by a number of events. 

See article: Exceptions to Statute of Limitations 

For just one of many examples, many cause of action statutes of limitations embrace the discovery rule. "[T]he essence of the discovery rule [is] that a plaintiff need not file a cause of action before he or she has reason at least to suspect a factual basis for its elements." Grisham v. Phillip Morris U.S.A. (2007) 40 Cal.4th 623. Under the delayed discovery rule, the date of "the last element essential to the cause of action" (that is, the typical accrual date) may have already passed. Thus, the delayed discovery rule extends the SOL time period.

See related article describing Defamation and the Delayed Discovery Rule.

See related article discussing Fraud and the Delayed Discovery rule Codified

Statutes of Repose exception:

One category of "statutes of limitations" which are not that common are called "statutes of repose."  A statute of repose cuts off a right of action after a specified period of time [Giest v. Sequoia Ventures (2000) 83 Cal.App.4th 300]. Stated another way, "a statute of repose begins when a specific event occurs, regardless of whether the cause of action has accrued. It cuts off a right of action even if the plaintiff lacks notice of the claim." Crossman v. Daimler Chrysler Corp. (2003) 108 Cal.App.4th 370. Example: California Code of Civil Procedure Section 337.15 sets a 10-year time limit on filing a lawsuit regarding a cause of action for latent (unknown) construction defects. Thus, unless there is some other exception, the SOL clock begins to run on "substantial completion" of a development or an improvement to land, and not from the time of damage or from discovery of the damage. Inco Development Corp. v. Superior Court, (2005) 131 Cal.App.4th 1014.

Examples of Elements of a Cause of Action:

1. Elements of a fraud cause of action: See article: Fraud and Misrepresentation Law

2. The elements for a basic breach of contract are:

(1) the existence of a contract,

(2) plaintiff's performance or excuse for non-performance,

(3) defendant's breach, and

(4) damages to plaintiff therefrom.

Acoustics, Inc. v. Trepte Construction Co. (1971) 14 Cal.App.3d 887, 913.

3. The elements of a cause of action for negligence are:

(1) a legal duty to use due care,

(2) a breach of that duty,

(3) a reasonably close causal connection between that breach and the plaintiff’s resulting injury, and

(4) actual loss or damage to the plaintiff.

 People v. Young (1942) 20 Cal. 2d 832; Ahern v. Dillenback (1991) 1 Cal. App. 4th 36.

List of Statute of Limitations specific articles on this website:


Exceptions to Statute of Limitations Tolling

Accrual Statute of Limitations

Medical Malpractice Statute of Limitations

Legal Malpractice Statute of Limitations

Defamation Statute of Limitations

Fraud Statute of Limitation

Government Claim Statute of Limitations

Wrongful Death Statute of Limitations


SOL laws are complicated: Statutes of limitations, and the court rules and cases that interpret and apply them, are complicated.  Even if you believe that the statute of limitation deadline might have passed or might be extended by an exception, do not rely on this article, but immediately seek consultation and legal advice from a knowledgeable California lawyer to determine if any of the time-extending exceptions or rules to the statue of limitations apply or not to your case.

Disclaimer: The information provided in this article is informational, only. The subject matter and applicable law is evolving and/or constant state of change.  No legal advice is given and no attorney/client or other relationship is established or intended.  The information provided is from general sources, and I cannot represent, guarantee or warrant that the information contained in this website is accurate, current, or is appropriate for the usage of any reader.  Consult with your own legal counsel before relying on any information on this website or this article.

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