When you're injured in a slip and fall in California, and someone else's negligence played a part in the accident, it usually makes sense to explore your options for getting compensation for your losses (called "damages" in legalese).
Whether you decide to file a third-party insurance claim with the property owner's insurer (at least as a first step), or take the matter to court right away via a personal injury lawsuit, a number of California laws and legal doctrines will almost certainly affect your case. Two of the most important of these are the statute of limitations filing deadline for slip and fall lawsuits, and "shared fault" rules that can affect an injured person's right to recover compensation when he or she bears some level of responsibility for the slip and fall accident. Read on for the details.
A statute of limitations is a state law that puts a time limit on your right to have a lawsuit heard by the state’s court system. The time limits vary depending on the kind of case you want to file.
As in most states, the statute of limitations that will affect a slip and fall injury claim in California is the same as the larger one that applies to all personal injury cases filed in the state’s civil court system. Specifically, California Code of Civil Procedure section 335.1 sets a two year deadline for the filing of "an action for...injury to, or for the death of, an individual caused by the wrongful act or neglect of another." As it’s used here, "neglect" is interchangeable with "negligence," the legal concept that dictates fault in most slip and fall cases. Learn more about proving fault for a slip and fall.
What if your personal property was damaged in the slip and fall? Maybe you broke an expensive watch, for example. There is a separate three year deadline for getting a lawsuit filed over the repair or replacement of that property in California. That statute of limitations is set by California Code of Civil Procedure section 338.
From a strategy standpoint, you want to leave yourself plenty of time to file a slip and fall lawsuit, even if you’re confident your injury claim will settle. At the very least, having the option of going to court will give you more leverage during settlement talks.
In some rare situations the clock may pause or "toll," giving you more time to get your case started. Talk to an attorney for the details on these exceptions in California, and for more details on the statute of limitations and how it applies to your case. Remember, if you try to file your lawsuit after the deadline set by the statute of limitations has passed, the property owner will almost surely ask the court to dismiss the case, and the court will almost certainly grant the dismissal.
When the Government Might Be to Blame For Your Slip and Fall
If your slip and fall injury was caused by the carelessness of a government employee in California—you tripped and fell on a broken section of city-owned sidewalk, or at the DMV, for example—any claim you file will need to follow a special set of rules. You'll need to provide notice of your claim within six months, and give the state or municipal government a chance to respond to your allegations. Learn more about filing a claim under the California Tort Claims Act.
Before you decide to file an insurance claim or lawsuit over your slip and fall, prepare yourself for the property owner's argument that you share some amount of responsibility for your accident. It's important to counter this argument, because if it is successful, you could see a significant chunk of any court award taken away (and a finding of shared fault will also likely reduce the value of your settlement).
There are a number of arguments that the property owner can make in attempting to pin some or all of the blame on you, including:
Regardless of the specific argument the property owner makes, if your California slip and fall case makes it to court, the state’s "pure comparative negligence rule" will determine how much compensation you can still receive from the property owner.
Under this rule, any damages award you receive will be reduced according to the percentage of your fault. So, let’s say the jury finds that you are 30 percent to blame for your slip and fall accident. They also find that your damages total $100,000 (your damages include your medical bills, your lost income, your "pain and suffering" in connection with your injuries, and other losses). In that situation the property owner will only be on the hook for $70,000 (that's the original $100,000 minus the 30 percent that equates with your share of fault).
That’s how shared fault works in California personal injury cases. If your slip and fall case makes it all the way to trial, the jury will be asked to make a finding as to fault, that fault finding will be applied to the total amount of your damages, and the amount that the property owner is ordered to pay will be reduced accordingly.
And even if your case doesn’t make it to trial -- even if a lawsuit isn’t actually filed, for that matter -- California’s comparative negligence rule will still be a factor. During settlement negotiations, the property owner’s insurance company (and/or their attorney) will have these shared fault rules in mind. They’re concerned with what might happen if your case does wind up in court, after all. You can expect any settlement offer from the other side to reflect their view of your role in causing your own slip and fall accident, seen through the lens of California’s shared fault rules. So it becomes that much more important to make a strong case against the property owner. Learn more about comparative negligence in slip and fall cases.