Imagine the disruption to your life that a pending or threatened lawsuit could cause. If you believed that you could potentially be sued by another person, you might cease making major purchases so as to ensure you have enough money to hire legal counsel and pay a potential judgment. You may put any plans you had to start a new venture or travel to some exotic locale until you see whether you will be hailed into court. You may even wonder about the individuals you could call as witnesses and the evidence you could use to defend yourself against any allegations brought against you – and you may wonder how you would locate these people and items of evidence years down the road.
As you can see, a pending lawsuit can cause a great disruption to a potential defendant’s future plans and activities. Not only this, but the longer a lawsuit remains pending or unfiled, the fuzzier witnesses’ memories become and the more difficult it becomes to locate important evidence needed by one party or the other to prove their claims. To combat these issues, California has enacted statutes of limitations that apply to every type of civil and criminal lawsuit, including workers’ compensation cases.
Purpose of Statutes of Limitations in General
Generally speaking, a statute of limitations is a law enacted by the legislature of a state that indicates how long an individual or entity has to file a particular type of lawsuit. The purpose of statutes of limitations are twofold: First, these statutes give some finality and definiteness to the future as potential tortfeasors/defendants know they will must held to account for their actions quickly or never at all. Secondly, these statutes help ensure that when a lawsuit is filed there is a fair probability that important evidence can still be located and crucial witnesses can not only be subpoenaed but would remember the facts giving rise the lawsuit.
These purposes underlie California’s workers’ compensation statute of limitations as well. Evidence and witnesses material to a workers’ compensation case can disappear quickly, and businesses accused of behaving negligently want to be able to make long-term plans without wondering if a lawsuit will be filed against them five or ten years down the road.
California Workers’ Compensation Statute of Limitations
California’s workers’ compensation statute of limitations gives injured workers one year from the date they are injured on the job in which to file a workers’ compensation lawsuit. This is a relatively strict timeline that does not have many exceptions or extensions available to those filing workers’ compensation lawsuits (called “plaintiffs”). So a plaintiff injured in a workplace accident on December 31, 2015 will need to have his or her workers’ compensation suit on file on or before December 31, 2016.
There are a number of exceptions to this general rule, meaning that injured workers may have longer than one year in which to file a claim. The plaintiff suffers an injury on one date but does not discover that injury until some time later, then the statute of limitations may be “tolled,” or stopped, until the time that the plaintiff does actually discover the injury. But the plaintiff may not hide his or her “head in the sand” and fail to take reasonable measures to discover whether he or she has suffered an injury: a plaintiff who does this will not get any additional time within which to file his or her suit. For example, suppose a worker falls off of a ladder and immediately goes to the emergency room to be evaluated. Doctors perform tests but do not see any injuries and so they send the worker home. Suppose one year later during a routine physical examination the worker’s general practitioner notices the worker has extensive spinal cord damage and this damage is determined to have resulted solely from the fall. The worker in this case would likely have one year from the date he or she discovered the spinal cord damage. (The result would likely be different if the worker fell but did not seek immediate medical evaluation.)
If a plaintiff files a workers’ compensation case after the statute of limitations has expired, the defendant has the opportunity to raise the expiration of the statute of limitations as an affirmative defense. If the plaintiff cannot show that one of the limited exceptions to the statute of limitations applies, then the court will have no choice but to dismiss the case.
Other Important Deadlines in a Workers’ Compensation Case
Note that the statute of limitations is but one of the many deadlines that plaintiffs must be cognizant of after a workplace injury. For example, the plaintiff must generally notify his or her employer within 30 days after the accident that the plaintiff has suffered an injury. A Los Angeles workers’ compensation lawyer can help plaintiffs ensure that these deadlines are met and the statute of limitations is observed.