The Statute of Limitations in Car Accident Cases
If you're thinking about filing a car accident lawsuit, you should understand the filing deadline set by a state law called the "statute of limitations."
In the days and weeks after a car accident, chances are you're assessing the consequences of the crash (in terms of your car accident injuries and vehicle damage), figuring out who might have been at fault, unless it’s obvious, and considering your legal options.
A car insurance claim is certainly an option (assuming one or more drivers carries insurance), and so is taking the matter to court by filing a car accident lawsuit. But any lawsuit you decide to pursue will be governed by a filing deadline set by the state. This deadline is known as a “statute of limitations”. In this article, I'll explain how the statute of limitations works, and I'll touch on some of the circumstances that could extend or otherwise modify the usual filing deadline.
A different statute of limitations filing deadline might apply to claims over car accident injuries and claims over vehicle damage. If your lawsuit contains both kinds of claims, they could be subject to separate time limits.
Statute of Limitations Basics
A statute of limitations is a state law that essentially puts an "expiration date" on your right to have the court consider any kind of civil case. Every state has passed these laws, and they create different filing deadlines for different kinds of legal claims.
The statute of limitations that will apply to a lawsuit over injuries caused by a car accident is usually the same sort of "blanket" deadline that applies to almost all personal injury lawsuits (or all lawsuits in which the basis for liability is the fault concept known as "negligence"), including claims over slip and fall incidents or any other accident where one person's carelessness resulted in harm to another.
A different filing deadline will usually apply to a lawsuit over vehicle damage. These cases are governed by the statute of limitations that covers civil cases seeking compensation for damage to (or total destruction of) personal property (motor vehicles are considered personal property).
Lawsuits Versus Insurance Claims
It's important to note that the statute of limitations deadline only applies to the filing of a lawsuit. The insurance claim process almost always starts well before the statutory lawsuit filing deadline becomes a factor.
Timing-wise after a car accident, the trick is to make sure you've resolved your insurance claim (and received a settlement), or are on your way to resolution comfortably ahead of the statute of limitations deadline. Otherwise, it's a sound strategy to get your lawsuit filed ahead of the deadline, to preserve your rights in case a settlement can't be reached.
Exceptions to the Statute of Limitations Deadline
In every state, special circumstances can affect the filing deadline set by the statute of limitations. These exceptions are always clearly defined by statute, and they vary from state to state, but generally, a special deadline could apply where:
the injured person was a minor at the time of the accident
the injured person was mentally incapacitated (or of "unsound mind") at the time of the accident, or
the person who caused the accident leaves the state for a certain amount of time (and can't be served with a lawsuit).
If you have any doubts about the Statute of Limitations that apply in the lawsuit you are considering, consult an attorney near you to play it safe.