How Long Do I Have to File a Defamation Lawsuit in California?

California's defamation statute of limitations sets a strict time limit on your right to have the state's civil court system consider your libel or slander lawsuit.

If you're thinking about bringing a defamation case to court in California, it's crucial to understand and comply with the statute of limitations for these kinds of lawsuits. Read on for the details on the filing deadline in California, why it's so important, and when the deadline might be extended.

One Year is the Standard Deadline for Filing a Defamation Lawsuit in California

You have one year to file a defamation lawsuit in California, according to California Code of Civil Procedure section 340(c). And the "clock" begins to run on the date on which the defamatory statement is first made. Even if the statement is later repeated or republished, the one-year clock doesn’t reset, and the plaintiff isn’t entitled to bring another lawsuit. What matters is the date on which the defamatory statement was first made or first published, for purposes of the running of the statute of limitations, and for purposes of asking a court for defamation damages. This “one time only” rule is laid out in California’s Uniform Single Publication Act (California Civil Code section 3425.1 et al).

In California, as in most states, defamation can take the form of either:

  • libel (which California Civil Code section 45 defines as "a false and unprivileged publication" that is written, depicted, or otherwise captured in some form that can be read or seen, and which exposes the subject to "hatred, contempt, [or] ridicule," or which causes him or her "to be shunned or avoided," or which injures his or her occupation or livelihood); or
  • slander (which is "a false and unprivileged publication," which is spoken ("orally uttered"), and which, among other things, injures the subject in terms of his or her profession or livelihood, or connects the subject of the statement with criminal activity, according to California Civil Code section 46).
Learn more about the elements of a defamation claim.

Extending California’s Statute of Limitations Deadline for Defamation Lawsuits

California’s Civil Code identifies a number of scenarios that could serve to delay the start of the statute of limitations "clock" for potential defamation lawsuits (or pause the clock after it has already started), effectively extending the one-year filing deadline set by section Civil Code section 340(c).

Here are a few examples of circumstances that are likely to modify the standard one-year timeline:

  • the allegedly defamed person (the plaintiff filing the lawsuit) did not discover, and was not aware of any facts that would have caused a reasonable person to suspect, that he or she had been harmed by a defamatory statement (this is known as the "delayed discovery" rule).
  • the plaintiff was under the age of 18 or was "lacking the legal capacity to make decisions" (i.e. subject to a temporary or permanent mental illness) at the time of the allegedly defamatory statement (California Code of Civil Procedure section 352), and
  • the person who allegedly made the defamatory statement (the defendant) left the state of California at some point after making it, and before the lawsuit could be filed (California Code of Civil Procedure section 351).

What If You Miss the Filing Deadline?

If more than a year has passed since the defamatory statement was first made, and no exception applies to extend the statute of limitations deadline, but you try to file a defamation lawsuit in California's courts anyway, it's a near-certainty that the court will summarily dismiss your case. If that happens, you’'ll have lost your right to ask any court for a legal remedy for the defamation, no matter how much harm it may have caused you.

It's important to note that the one-year California statute of limitations isn't just a factor if you've decided to take your defamation case to court. It’s also crucial to your position if you’re negotiating an out-of-court settlement with the person who made/published the statement. If the statute of limitations deadline has passed, and the other side knows that your filing a lawsuit is now a procedural impossibility, you'll have lost all your leverage.

If you have questions about how California’s statute of limitations applies to your potential defamation lawsuit -- especially if the one-year deadline has passed or is looming -- it may be time to discuss your situation with an experienced California attorney.

Learn more about defamation, libel, and slander.

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