A statute of limitations places a time limit on when a legal action can be filed regarding negligent or wrongful conduct. Upon expiration of the statute of limitations for a particular civil claim, the person seeking a legal remedy loses the right to file a lawsuit seeking monetary compensation, although there are exceptions that may extend the statute or toll it. For criminal matters, no prosecution may be brought for particular crimes after the passage of a certain time, unless it is a capital crime or embezzlement of public funds.

In California and all other states, different statutes exist for different claims and for particular crimes. By limiting the time to bring a lawsuit or a prosecution, you are encouraging prompt action to preserve testimony and evidence that is inevitably lost over time.

Why the Statute of Limitations is Important

By not filing your lawsuit or prosecuting someone within the time constraints of the statute of limitations, you forfeit your right to seek a legal remedy and the state may not seek prosecution of an individual.

To determine which statute of limitations applies to your case, you must determine the nature of the claim you are seeking and the status of the defendant. If the defendant is the state or a political subdivision, you have to abide by the California Tort Claims Act, which requires you to first send a written notice of your claim to the proper agency with certain information.

The statute of limitations begins to run from the date of your injury or loss. California recognizes the discovery rule, which allows you a certain time to file a lawsuit if the cause of your injury or loss, or even if an injury had occurred, could not have been discovered unless it could reasonably have been discovered. This would apply in cases where an embezzler's malfeasance could have not have been discovered until an audit revealed that false financial statements were being issued over a period of years.

Criminal Statute of Limitations

California imposes no statute of limitations for crimes of murder, embezzlement of public funds or for capital offenses and those that carry a term of life imprisonment without parole.

Felonies punishable by eight or more years in prison must be prosecuted within six years, while others that carry prison time of three years have a three-year statute of limitations. Misdemeanor offenses have a one-year statute, while crimes regarding child pornography or involving elders or dependent adults carry different time limitations for initiating prosecution.

Civil Statute of Limitations

You must bring a lawsuit for a personal injury in California within two years of the injury, including claims of product liability. For medical malpractice claims, you have either three years from the date or the injury or one year from the date you discover or should have discovered the injury, whichever comes first. For instance, you have one year from the date you discover the presence of a medical or foreign object mistakenly left in your body cavity to file a suit.

For civil cases involving fraud, you have three years to start a lawsuit. You only have one year in a libel or defamation action. Lawsuits for breach of a written contract must be brought within four years, while for oral contracts you have two years. Personal property damage claims have a three-year statute.

How an Attorney Can Help

Different claims have different statutes of limitations. While one claim may be barred, your attorney may find another that may still be filed. Also, for some cases there are other procedures must be followed as a prerequisite to filing. Talk to a California attorney about your legal options if you have suffered an injury or are facing criminal prosecution.

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