Dealing with a car accident is never easy. At best, you’re looking at property damage and a few hours wasted with the police and insurance companies.
In 2021, about 24.69 percent of car crashes injured 5.4 million people. While fatal crashes are rare at 0.0028 percent, they led to 46,980 deaths. Victims have a lot to deal with, not the least of which is losses in some form.
Fortunately, you have a right to compensation when you sustain harm in a car accident. In most states, it involves filing a claim with insurance companies. Depending on the state, it could be yours or the other driver’s insurance company. Sometimes, you may have to file a car accident lawsuit to recover damages.
In that case, you should know about the statute of limitations for a car accident. Knowing the amount of time you have to file a personal injury lawsuit is critical. However, there are factors you must consider. It would be best to consult a car accident attorney to walk you through the legal process.
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What is the statute of limitations?
A statute of limitations is a state rule that specifies a period of time a plaintiff can initiate a cause of action. It applies to criminal and civil cases, including car accidents resulting in injury or death. Most statutes of limitations are legislative laws, but some are established by court decisions or judicial common law.
The rationale of the statute of limitations is fairness. It ensures potential defendants will not fear the threat of a lawsuit indefinitely. It promotes a sense of finality and legal certainty.
However, while the statute of limitations is non-negotiable, the specific timeframe that applies may depend on the circumstances of a case. The time limit may extend or shorten based on the following factors:
The statute of limitations for personal injury range from one to six years, depending on the state. For example, Maine has a six-year period to file a civil action, including personal injuries, with some exceptions. Louisiana prescribes one year for delictual actions. The midway point is three-year for Michigan car accidents. The claims include injuries sustained due to an at-fault driver’s negligence, with exceptions.
Many things can go wrong in a car accident. If you’re lucky, your only legal claim is for property damage. However, victims may sustain physical or emotional injuries, in which case you may claim compensation for your losses. Suppose a loved one dies at the scene or in the hospital. Your legal claim as a survivor is a wrongful death.
Most states impose different time limits for each of these claims. Florida, for instance, has a four-year period for personal injury but only two years for wrongful death claims.
Many states also have different time limits for medical malpractice claims. For instance, the statute of limitations for personal injury in California is two years. Suppose you received medical attention for a car accident in California, and they misdiagnosed your condition. You have three years to file a medical malpractice case against the healthcare provider.
Age and capacity of the plaintiff
Most state laws suspend the statute of limitations for personal injury cases involving minors until they reach the age of majority. Once they do, they have the same period of time to file a claim.
The same applies to legally incapacitated victims. The definition of legal capacity varies by state but typically includes someone with a mental illness or physical disability. For example, suppose the victim sustains a traumatic brain injury and falls into a coma. The clock starts when the victim emerges from the coma and can make decisions.
Most states have a blanket statute for personal injury based on negligence. However, some states, like Colorado, have specific statutes for car accidents. It would be best to consult a personal injury lawyer in your state to ensure you have the correct information.
The defendant is a government entity
Typically, the statute of limitations for car accident claims against a government entity is shorter. For example, New York generally provides three years to file a personal injury claim. However, you must file a formal claim against the government within 90 days of the incident.
These factors affect the applicable statute of limitations, but there are nuances to the law. Even something seemingly straightforward as a time limit may not unfold as expected.
When does the statute of limitations start?
The statute of limitations for car accidents typically starts on the date of the accident, except when the victim dies. In that case, it’s a wrongful death lawsuit, which may have a different time limit.
In either case, the statute of limitations specifies when to file a cause of action. For example, Arizona requires you to file a personal injury case within a two-year period after an incident. Otherwise, you may be barred from pursuing your claim.
However, there may be exceptions to the rule. For example, suppose you did not immediately discover your injury or were a minor at the time of the accident. Another scenario is the defendant is out of state or the country. In any of these cases, the statute of limitations may be tolled.
Tolling is a legal term for temporarily suspending the statute of limitations. Essentially, tolling extends the time to file a lawsuit, giving the plaintiff additional time to file a claim.
These exceptions are not applied automatically. If the statute of limitations expires, the defendant in your case may use that as a defense. Your lawyer can argue for an extension if your case qualifies for potential exceptions to the statute of limitations.
Lawsuits vs. Insurance Claims
Most US states require motorists to have car insurance to cover damages resulting from a head-on or sideswipe accident. An insurance claim is the usual route for recovering your losses.
Most insurance companies require you to file a claim within a reasonable time, which can be almost anything the insurer decides. The statute of limitations only applies to lawsuits, so you should not rely on it when filing an insurance claim.
However, you should know that most claims end in a settlement, whether negotiating with insurance adjusters or going to court. It is in your best interest to act fast so you can get compensation as soon as possible.
When should you file a car accident lawsuit?
Suppose you file a claim with your insurance company or the at-fault driver’s insurer in tort states, and they deny it. Alternatively, suppose the insurer gives a lowball settlement or the policy limits are insufficient to cover all your losses. In any of these circumstances, you should file a car accident lawsuit as soon as possible.
Preparing for a lawsuit takes time and resources, so you should leave no room for delay. It would be great if you lived in Maine and had six years to file a suit. However, most states only give you two to three years, so you might run out of time before you know it.
Collecting and presenting evidence is essential in building a case that won’t be dismissed for lack of merit. Evidence may include accident reports, video footage, medical records, witness statements, and expert testimonies. Sometimes, you may need to reconstruct the accident so the jury can visualize and understand the scene better. This process can be demanding.
An experienced lawyer has the connections to obtain the evidence you need more efficiently than you can do on your own. They may even front the costs if they are working on contingency, which works to your advantage. For example, the fee of an accident reconstructionist can run into thousands of dollars per hour.
If filing a lawsuit is your only option, hire a personal injury lawyer first. They’ll take care of everything for you so you can put your energy into getting your life back on track.
What can happen when the statute of limitations expires?
Most people hesitate to take legal action because of the costs of litigation. However, waiting too long can affect your chance of recovering losses from serious injuries in a car accident. Once the statute of limitations expires, you may no longer be able to file a personal injury lawsuit.
Nonetheless, you shouldn’t give up, as there are exceptions to the rule. Consult with a competent lawyer to find a loophole that would extend the time limit for your case. Aside from age, capacity, and discovery considerations, three possible scenarios may apply.
One is fraud. Suppose the defendant concealed vital information during discovery that would have proven their liability or reduced your contribution to the accident. The court may decide to extend the statute of limitations.
Another is continuing harm. Suppose a car accident caused injuries that worsened gradually over a long period. It may justify an extension of the statute of limitations to allow you to discover the full extent of the harm. In most cases, it will result in increased compensation.
Finally, you may get an extension when the cause of action is also a crime. Some states have a tolling provision because you cannot file a civil claim during an ongoing criminal investigation.
It’s important to note that the rules surrounding these exceptions are complex and vary by jurisdiction. Your personal injury attorney can figure out potential exceptions that may apply to your case.
State-by-State Statute of Limitations for Car Accidents
The statutes of limitations for wrongful death and personal injury lawsuits are state-specific. The table below provides the typical time limits for accident victims in general. Unless specified otherwise, these time limits are not specific to car accidents.
Did you know?
The federal government is also subject to the statute of limitations in civil actions. It has five years to file an enforcement action against an entity for breaching a contract, regulation, or law.
File Within the Statute of Limitations for a Car Accident
The statute of limitations for personal injury cases and wrongful death claims is critical. It establishes the basic legal standing of plaintiffs to file a cause of action. Once it runs out, you may not be able to file a car accident claim and get compensation for your losses.
The Personal Injury Center tackles many legal topics that may be useful for victims of negligence. We also offer free consultations to help you find an experienced car accident lawyer in your state. However, it would be best to act quickly. The statute of limitations waits for no one.
Don’t wait for the statute of limitations to expire in your car accident case. Book a free consultation at The Personal Injury Center today!
FAQs on Statute of Limitations for Car Accidents
Reports vary on what you can get for a car accident settlement. Some put the average at about $20,000 for bodily injury and $5,000 for property damage in 2020. Others put it closer to $25,000.
These are averages, so they might not reflect what the majority get in an insurance settlement offer. When you decide to cut your losses and go for a quick settlement, have a lawyer negotiate for you. That way, you can get the best deal without a trial.
What can a personal injury lawyer do to help with the statute of limitations in my car accident case?
The first thing a lawyer can do for you is to make sure you have legal standing and file a lawsuit on time. But suppose the time limit has run out on your case when you get legal advice. In that case, they can try to justify an extension using the state's current laws.
Most states consider hit-and-runs a crime, ranging from a misdemeanor to a felony. As such, the criminal statute of limitations will depend on whether it involves property damage, injury, or death.
However, civil lawsuits for a hit-and-run can have the same time limit as those for personal injury and wrongful death in the state. For example, the time limit for personal injury in Washington is three years. The same applies to hit-and-run accidents involving injuries.