What Is the Property Damage Statute of Limitations in California?

Comply with California's statute of limitations or you could lose your right to compensation for damaged or destroyed property.

By , J.D. · University of San Francisco School of Law

If someone else damages your property in California, whether it's harm to "real" property (your house or your land) or personal property (which includes vehicle damage), you might be considering filing a lawsuit over the incident. If so, it's important to understand California's statute of limitations for property damage claims, and a few related state laws.

What Is a Statute of Limitations?

First things first. A "statute of limitations" is a state law that puts a strict deadline on your right to file a lawsuit over any kind of legal dispute or harm suffered. Every state has passed these laws, and the time limits vary depending on the subject matter of the lawsuit.

What is the Property Damage Statute of Limitations in California?

Most property damage lawsuits must be filed in California's court system within three years of the incident that caused the damage. That's true whether it's real property or personal property. Specifically, California Code of Civil Procedure section 338 sets a three-year deadline on:

  • "an action for trespass upon or injury to real property" (in other words, a situation where someone enters your property unlawfully and/or does something to damage your home, another structure, or physical land), and
  • "an action for taking, detaining, or injuring goods or chattels" ("chattels" is just an old-school legal term for almost any kind of property that isn't considered real property, including vehicles, furniture, jewelry, and most anything else).

It's important to note that this three-year deadline applies almost any time you're asking a court to award you monetary compensation for damaged or destroyed property, whether that claim is part of a larger legal action (a car accident case that includes claims for both personal injury and vehicle damage, for example) or a standalone lawsuit.

What If My Property Damage Was Caused By a Construction Defect In California?

A special deadline likely applies to the filing of a lawsuit for property damage caused by a construction defect in California, but the specifics of your situation will dictate the deadline. A number of state laws (including California Civil Code section 896) can come into play here, but the lawsuit-filing deadline is typically four years or 10 years, depending on the type of defect and whether the problem was obvious or hidden.

This area of the law can get complicated, so it might make sense to talk to a California attorney if you think your property damage case involves a construction defect. Learn more:

What Happens If I Miss the Statute of Limitations Deadline In California?

If you try to file your California property damage lawsuit after the three-year deadline has passed, the person you're suing will almost certainly make a motion asking the court to dismiss the case, and the court will grant the dismissal—except in rare cases where an exemption from the deadline applies (more on these exceptions in the next section).

So, even if you're pretty sure your case will settle, you still want to leave yourself plenty of time to file a lawsuit if you need to.

Extending the Statute of Limitations Deadline in California

In a California property damage lawsuit—and most other kinds of civil lawsuits, for that matter—a number of situations could pause ("toll" in legalese) the running of the statute of limitations "clock." For example:

  • If the defendant (the person you're trying to sue) leaves the state after the property damage incident, the period of absence probably won't be counted as part of the three-year period (California Code of Civil Procedure section 351).
  • If the property owner is under the age of 18 or "lacking the legal capacity to make decisions," the statute of limitations "clock" probably won't start running until they turn 18 or their competence is restored (California Code of Civil Procedure section 352).

Other exceptions too complex to cover here may also apply to extend the California statute of limitations time limit. Talk to an attorney or do your own research to learn more.

How Do I File a Property Damage Lawsuit In California?

Where you file your California property damage lawsuit depends in part on the amount of compensation you're seeking ("damages") from the person or organization you're suing.

California's "Superior" courts have the power to hear most civil trials in the state. Chances are, you'll file in the courthouse that's in the California county where the defendant lives, or where your property damage occurred:

  • If you're seeking $25,000 or less in damages, you'll file a "limited civil case" in Superior Court.
  • If you're seeking more than $25,000 in damages, you'll file an "unlimited civil case" in Superior Court.

Filing a Property Damage Lawsuit In California's Small Claims Courts

If you're asking for $10,000 or less in compensation from the at-fault party, you might want to consider filing your property damage claim in small claims court, where the process is more streamlined and your case is likely to get resolved quicker, compared with Superior Court. Get more details on small claims court in California.

Do I Need a Lawyer for a California Property Damage Claim?

It usually makes sense to handle a property damage claim on your own, as long as the case is fairly straightforward. You might even find it tough to get a lawyer to take a run-of-the-mill property damage claim. But reaching out to an experienced lawyer—if only to discuss your options—might be a good idea if:

  • in addition property damage, your case involves personal injury, a possible construction defect, or some other legal issue, or
  • you've tried making an insurance claim and the company's response seems outlandish or unprofessional to you, making a bad faith insurance claim a possibility.

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