Time Limits for Filing a Lawsuit

There are a variety of reasons that it may be better to wait before suing, often having to do with determining the amount of damages to demand in the lawsuit.  However, waiting too long to sue may legally prohibit you from being able to do so.

Almost every law provides a window of time after the facts of a case arise during which a suit may be filed.  This window of time is called the Statute of Limitations (“SOL”).  The size of the window will depend on the law which provides the right.  After the time period has ended, the SOL is said to have “tolled.”  California Code Civ. Proc. (“CCP”) § 312.  The rules for how a SOL tolls are complicated.  However, if you are thinking of filing suit, you should be aware of a few basic rules.

First, a civil action (lawsuit) is “commenced” by filing a complaint in court.   CCP § 350.    Some laws require that you send a demand letter to a party asking for the money or other remedy you seek.  However, sending this letter does not stop the SOL from running.

Second, some of the common SOLs in California are: four years for actions based on written contracts (CCP § 337(1)), two years for actions based on oral contracts (CCP § 339(1)), two years for most personal injury and wrongful death actions (including assault, battery, or injury to, or for the death of, an individual, CCP § 335.1), and three years for a trespass action or other injury to real property (CCP § 338(b)).

Finally, even before the SOL has run, claims for equitable relief (e.g., for rescission or reformation of a contract) may be disallowed if the plaintiff (suing party) is guilty of laches (unreasonable delay in filing).  Laches exists if there is prejudice to the adverse party based on the plaintiff’s delay.  Marriage of Fellows (2006) 39 C. 4th 179, 183.

It is important to remember that because of the above-mentioned doctrine of laches, and because the SOL for your case may not be as obvious as it seems, it is a good idea to consult with an attorney as soon as you are considering filing suit.