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California Small Claims & The Statute of Limitations

Camila Lopez - California Small Claims - December 5, 2022

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Do not wait to file your California small claims court lawsuit. After an incident occurs, you only have a set period of time to file your lawsuit. Think of this as a deadline (called the statute of limitations). Once the deadline is reached, you may not be able to win in small claims court. The majority of statutes of limitations affecting California small claims are between 2-4 years.  

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What is the Statute of Limitations?

The California legislature sets deadlines (called the statute of limitations) for when a lawsuit can be filed. In California, there isn’t a difference between the statute of limitations for a small claims lawsuit versus for a lawsuit filed in regular civil court. Instead, there is a different statute of limitations period for different types of legal claims. For example, if you were in a car accident and someone damaged your car, there would be a different statute of limitations than if you were suing someone for not paying you back after you lent them money. 

Common Statute of Limitations for California Small Claims Court

This is not a complete list but rather some of the most common statute of limitations periods affecting California small claims court lawsuits.

Written Contracts

Lawsuits involving written contracts → 4 years from the day the contract was broken. (Cal. Civ. Proc. Code § 337)

Examples:

  • You have a written lease and your landlord fails to return your security deposit.

  • You have a written lease and the tenant fails to pay rent.

  • You have a written lease and you move out before the end of your lease but the landlord does not attempt to rerent the unit and mitigate the damages (specifically Cal. Civ. Proc. Code § 337.2)

  • A written contract for the performance of a service.

  • A written contract for the sale of a good.

Oral Contracts

Lawsuits involving oral contracts → 2 years from the date the contract was broken. (Cal. Civ. Proc. Code § 339)

Examples:

  • An oral lease (Failure to pay rent/ Failure to return security deposit).

  • An oral contract for the performance of a service.

  • An oral contract for the sale of a good.

Property Damage or Property Theft

Lawsuits involving property damage → 3 years from the date the damage occurred or from when the property was stolen. (Cal. Civ. Proc. Code §§ 338). Cal. Civ. Proc. Code 338(c)(1) uses the legal terms “goods” or “chattel” to describe all other property that is not land so do not worry if you see these terms.

Examples:

  • You get in a car accident and your car is damaged (Cal. Civ. Proc. Code §§ 338(b)). 

  • Someone stole or won't return property that belongs to you (Cal. Civ. Proc. Code §§ 338(c)(1)).

  • You leave your lawnmower in your backyard and your neighbor hops the fence between your houses and takes the lawnmower. 

  • You are doing work at a coffee shop and another customer takes your laptop from the table and leaves. 

Personal Injuries

Lawsuits involving personal injuries → 2 years from the date of the injury. (Cal. Civ. Proc. Code § 335.1)

Examples:

  • You get in a car accident and suffer injuries as a result of the accident.

However, if the injury is not immediately discovered → 1 year from the date the injury was discovered.

Fraud

Lawsuits involving fraud → 3 years from the date the fraud was discovered. (Cal. Civ. Proc. Code § 338(d))

Example:

  • Someone sells you a car that they said had never been in an accident but it had.

Negligence by a Healthcare Provider

Lawsuits involving negligence by a healthcare provider → 3 years from the date of the injury. (Cal. Civ. Proc. Code § 340.5).

Example:

  • A dentist negligently extracted your tooth.

However, if the injury is not immediately discovered → 1 year from the date the injury was discovered (Cal. Civ. Proc. Code § 340.5).

Defamation

Lawsuits involving defamation → 1 year from when the defamatory statement is first published or made available online. (Cal. Civ. Proc. Code § 340.5(c), Traditional Cat Ass'n, Inc. v. Gilbreath).

Suing a Government Entity

  • To sue a government entity such as a city or county,
    you may first be required to file paperwork with the government entity before being allowed to sue them in small claims court.

  • This paperwork is normally known as an administrative claim.  

  • Generally, you have 6 months from the date you were injured to first file the administrative claim with the government entity.

  • The government entity will then review the administrative claim and see if they would like to settle with you.

  • Afterward, you may be able to file a lawsuit in small claims court.

  • Please keep in mind that the statute of limitations listed above may be different when they involve the government. For example, if your car is damaged by a pothole on a county-owned road, the deadline to sue the government may be different than if you were suing a car mechanic for property damage. Do not delay filing your administrative claim and later your small claims. Make sure to consult an attorney if you have any issues determining the statute of limitations.

  • Learn more about claims against the government here.

Looking for a different statute of limitations? You can go straight to the source on the California Legislative Information website. There you can find the California Code of Civil Procedure that lists all the statute of limitations periods. If you have any doubts about the statute of limitations in your case, you may want to consult with an attorney. 

For more information on the statute of limitations see here. 

Up Next: Review our Guide to California Small Claims.

Author

Camila Lopez

Chief Legal Architect & Co-Founder @ People Clerk. Camila holds a juris doctor degree and is a certified mediator. Her passion is breaking down complicated legal processes so that people without an attorney can get justice.

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