Q: About six years ago, I lent a friend $600 to help with her tuition and living expenses while she was enrolled in college. We had an informal, but signed, contract that she would pay the money back within one year. She had to stay in school longer than expected because of tough circumstances, and we agreed that she could take longer to pay the money back (but not in writing). I then moved to another state, and have just recently moved back to California. Since I’ve been back, I’ve asked for the repayment several times, but I keep getting excuses. I’m thinking of taking this to court, but a friend says that too much time has passed and that the statute of limitations has run out. Is this true? I thought a statute of limitations only applied to criminal issues.


A: Statutes of limitations (also called limitations of actions) apply to both civil and criminal actions. Some people may be more aware of these statutes as the apply to criminal actions, since many popular TV crime dramas mention them in passing: maybe the police can’t charge the bad guy with a crime because the statute of limitation for Breaking and Entering has expired; or perhaps the bad guy can be charged because there is no statute of limitation for murder. Television is well on its way to making us all forensic and legal experts, it seems! The basics of this type of statute are outlined below, but questions on this issue can be complex and may require that you spend some time doing research.

Statutes of limitations are enacted by the state legislature and may contain exceptions, qualifications, or additions depending on the circumstances of your claim. A judge cannot extend the time period unless the statute itself provides such authority, but there are legal doctrines (i.e. case law) that may provide relief from an otherwise expired statute of limitation. Discovering and applying these doctrines requires a thorough understanding of the law and a good deal of research.

The purpose of these statutes is to prevent old or false claims from arising after all evidence has been lost or destroyed, or after the facts have become muddled with the passing years. It is also to encourage those who might have claims to begin an action early, while the evidence is “fresh” and potential witnesses are available.

One aspect that might complicate your research is determining which statute(s) of limitations will control your cause(s) of action (or, why you are suing). States establish different deadlines depending on what the cause of action involves, such as a contract, a personal injury, or real property. Knowing which “category” your lawsuit will fall into will require some research or a consultation with a licensed attorney. Below are some online resources that may be helpful, but for more in-depth information you may want to visit your local county law library.

For civil actions, statutes of limitations can be found in the California Code of Civil Procedure §§312-363, which can be found online at http://www.leginfo.ca.gov/calaw.html or in print at your local county law library. You can browse the sections by clicking the box by Code of Civil Procedure and then clicking search. For criminal actions in California, statutes of limitations are located in Penal Code §799 et seq.

Nolo Press, a publisher of self-help legal materials, provides a brief description of statutes of limitations on its website. Also, the website’s encyclopedia  features a useful chart comparing the statutes of limitations for all fifty states.

A few Nolo Press books, including “Everybody's Guide to Small Claims Court in California” and “Win Your Lawsuit in California,"provide explanations of some the statutes applicable to civil actions in California. These books are usually available for purchase in large bookstores, directly from the publisher at www.nolo.com, or online at www.amazon.com. When purchasing any law book on Amazon, be certain that you are buying the most recent edition or update. You can also find these books at your local public library or county law library. To find the law library nearest you, go to www.publiclawlibrary.org.

Do you have a question for the County Law Librarian? Just email sacpress@saclaw.org. If your question is selected your answer will appear in next Thursday's column. Even if your question isn't selected, though, I will still respond within two weeks.

Coral Henning, Director
@coralh & @saclawlibrarian