First, let's explain the legalese, for those who may not be fluent. A "statute of limitations" is a state law that sets a limit on the amount of time you have to go to court and file a lawsuit over some type of harm or loss. The specific deadline depends on the type of case you want to file.
As in most states, the statute of limitations that affects injury-related car accident lawsuits 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." (Note: As it's used here, "neglect" is interchangeable with "negligence," which is the legal basis for establishing fault in most injury cases.)
It makes a difference whether the car accident resulted in injury or in death. If anyone was injured in the crash -- whether a driver, passenger, motorcycle rider, bicyclist, or pedestrian -- they must get their lawsuit filed within two years of the date of the accident. But if someone dies as a result of the accident and their family brings a wrongful death case against the at-fault driver, the "clock" starts on the date of the person's death, if it is different from the date of the accident.
If you only want to file a lawsuit over damage to your vehicle, California Code of Civil Procedure section 338 gives you three years to get that kind of case filed against the at-fault driver. (Learn more about Vehicle Damage Claims.)
The court will almost certainly refuse to consider your case, unless it falls under one of the rare exceptions that will extend or pause the running of the statute of limitations "clock." That's why it's so important to understand how the time limit applies to your case.
From a strategy standpoint, you want to leave yourself plenty of time to file a car accident lawsuit in case you need to -- even if you're confident that your case will be resolved through the insurance claim process. At the very least, preserving the option to go to court and file a lawsuit will give you more leverage during settlement talks. Read our article for more information on California's car accident laws. If you're worried that the two-year deadline is approaching, it may be time to contact an experienced California car accident attorney to talk about your options and make sure your legal rights are protected.
If you were injured and/or had your vehicle damaged in an incident that was pretty clearly caused by the negligence of a government employee in California—you were rear-ended by a city bus, 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 municipality a chance to respond to your allegations. Learn more about filing a claim under the California Tort Claims Act.