When a Small Claims Case Can Be Started

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In all courts, there are time limits on how long a case may be filed after the problem occurs. These time limits are set by laws called “statutes of limitations.” Opens new window

  • In California, these time limits vary according to the type of claim and usually range from one to ten years.  For example, lawsuits related to real property have fairly long time periods, while slander and libel usually have short time periods.
    (See California Code of Civil Procedure, Sections 337 - 343, Opens new window  and
    California Commercial Code, Section 2725) Opens new window
  • Normally, once the time to file a case “runs out,” a lawsuit cannot be started in court.

Sometimes the time period starts from the date of the problem occurred – as in the case of a physical or emotional injury.

  • Other times, this period starts on the date of discovery of a problem, such as discovering a defect in a manufactured product.
  • In cases of contracts, the time may start on the date the contract is broken.

The following are the periods of time to file (the “statutes of limitations”) for some of the most common reasons why people go to court.

NOTE: Cases against government agencies (also called “public entities”) have different rules.  To learn more, click here.

1 year – from the date of the incident:

NOTE: Negligence by a health care provider requires that you give the provider a special notice in writing that you intend to sue him or her at least 90 days before you file your case. This is called a “Notice of Intent to Sue.”)

2 years:

  • Personal physical/emotional injury, from the date of the incident,
  • Oral contracts, from the date the contract was broken.

3 years – from the date of the incident: 

4 years:

  • Breaking a written contract, from the date of the break, 
  • Breaking a legal duty, Opens new window from the date of the break, 
  • Breaking an agreement about sale of goods, from the date of the break, 
  • Construction defects, Opens new window from date of construction, if the defect is obvious. 
  • Miscellaneous reasons not covered in other categories.

10 years:

  • Construction “defects,” from date of construction resulting in the problem if you cannot easily see the problem.

NOTE: If you filed a claim against a government agency (also called a “public agency”):

  • If you received a written rejection of your claim, you have 6 months from the mailing date (postmark) of the rejection letter to file a case against the agency in small claims court.
  • If you did NOT receive a rejection letter, you have 2 years from the mailing date (postmark) of the rejection letter to file a case against the agency in small claims court counted from the day the original problem occurred.

IMPORTANT: This is a complicated area of law.  If you have questions – for example, if you think it is too late for a case to be filed -- contact the Small Claims Advisor Opens new window for your court for more information. You may do this if you are suing or being sued.



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