The Washington Department of Transportation estimates that more than 100,000 crashes occur on Washington’s roads and highways each year, with approximately one-third resulting in injury to drivers and occupants. Washington is a tort-liability state, which means the party who causes the accident is liable for damages. You need to file a claim with your insurance carrier as soon as possible, but you do have some time to file a legal claim against the other party. Washington law provides a statute of limitations—a time limit—in which you can take legal action after a car accident, and the exact time limit varies on the circumstances of your accident.
We have compiled the following guide to provide information about Washington car accident injury claims and their associated statutes of limitations. If you have been involved in a car accident, it’s imperative to be aware of time limits so you do not miss the opportunity to get the compensation you deserve for your injuries.
Filing an Insurance Claim After a Washington Car Accident
Sometimes drivers don’t want to file an accident claim with their auto insurance carrier because they are worried about an increase in their insurance rates. Other times, drivers assume they don’t need to file a claim with their own carrier when another driver caused the accident. But regardless of fault, you should file a car accident claim with your own carrier for the following reasons:
- Your policy requires you file a claim. Most auto insurance carriers require drivers to report damages when their coverage might apply. Read your policy carefully because failure to report damage from a car accident might result in coverage denial or policy cancellation.
- Your vehicle is totaled or needs extensive repairs. In severe accidents, it’s unlikely the at-fault driver’s insurance carrier will accept liability without a lawsuit. When you file an insurance claim under your collision coverage, if applicable, your policy will cover repairs or replacement. Your insurance company will seek damages from the at-fault driver’s carrier and you won’t have to wait months to deal with the damage to your vehicle.
- Your insurance carrier will fight for you. Even if you believe another party caused the car accident, that doesn’t prevent them from filing a claim against you. If you immediately report a car accident to your carrier, they will defend you against such claims.
Insurance companies remain profitable by watching their bottom line; this means they don’t approve every claim submitted to them. If you fail to report a claim to your carrier, you might have to pay higher premiums or have your policy canceled. Protect yourself from these consequences by providing all the necessary information to your adjuster, but only share the facts of the accident. Don’t talk about blame or negligence. Your insurance company will investigate the circumstances of the accident to determine liability.
Statutes of Limitations in Washington Car Accident Claims
A statute of limitations is a law that sets a time limit within which you can take legal action after you have been harmed. Prosecutors must also comply with statutes of limitations when a person commits a crime. Statutes of limitations vary greatly depending on the circumstances of a car accident, and whether a crime was involved. In civil actions resulting from car accidents, the statute of limitations specifically refers to the amount of time you have to bring a car accident lawsuit against another party in which you allege that their negligence or actions caused you injury. When the statute of limitations runs out for your injury, it is unlikely that a Washington court will agree to hear your case.
The applicable time limit that applies to your car accident depends on which party(s) you name in a lawsuit, and whether or not the car accident resulted in a fatality. Below are the most common applicable statutes of limitations under Washington law for car accident-related injury claims.
- Car accident injury claims. In most cases, you will have three years from the date of your car accident to take legal action against the at-fault driver. Once the three-year statute of limitations expires, it’s unlikely a Washington court will hear your case, no matter how strong it might be.
- Defective vehicle injury claims. If you sustained injuries in a car accident because of a defective vehicle or defective car part, a product liability attorney can help you file a product liability lawsuit to seek compensation for damages related to your injuries. In most cases, you have three years to bring a product liability case. If an exception applies to your case, Washington has an absolute time limit, called a statute of repose, for product liability cases. The statute of repose is 12 years from the original purchase date, which means you cannot take legal action beyond 12 years from the original purchase date of the car or defective parts, such as tires or brake pads.
- Claims against a government entity. If you get into a car accident with a government employee or a poorly maintained road caused your accident, you also have three years to take legal action in Washington; however, you must file a damage claim with the Washington State Office of Risk Management first. The city of Seattle and many counties have their own forms for this process. If you aren’t able to come to a settlement with the government entity, you can file a car accident lawsuit after a 60-day waiting period.
- Wrongful death car accident claims. If your loved one died in a car accident caused by another party, you might be able to recover damages in a wrongful death lawsuit depending on your relationship with the deceased. Washington law permits you to seek compensation for pain and suffering, funeral expenses, and non-economic losses based on your relationship, as long as you take legal action against the allegedly liable party within three years of your loved one’s death.
Exceptions to Washington Statutes of Limitations
Washington laws have explicit and varied statutes of limitations for almost every type of crime or tort. While courts rarely make exceptions to a statute of limitations, there are some circumstances in which you can argue that you are entitled to an exception to the standard time limit. Some circumstances that might convince a Washington court to toll, or extend, the statute of limitations time clock include:
Minor and Disabled Car Accident Victims
A person under age 18 or a disabled person who suffers injuries in a car accident might have grounds to ask a Washington court to extend the statute of limitations for making an injury claim. For example, if a child’s parents do not help the child file a lawsuit for their injuries, they can choose to take legal action when they turn 18. Once a minor turns 18, the three-year statute of limitations clock begins. Disabled persons who don’t understand the nature of the proceedings might be granted extended time for a guardian to file a lawsuit on their behalf. Keep in mind that each car accident has distinctive circumstances, so you must consult with an experienced Washington car accident attorney to determine the best course of action in your situation.
Unknown Location of the Named Defendant
It can sometimes be challenging to serve a court summons on an at-fault party. Washington law allows courts to toll the statute of limitations when the defendant has traveled out of state and/or conceals their travel. Sometimes travel is for business or pleasure; other times, the defendant might travel out of state to avoid getting served a summons for a lawsuit. In either case, the law is on your side. Once the defendant returns to Washington, your attorney can help you petition the court for more time to take legal action.
Washington law follows federal law in that it permits courts to toll the statute of limitations in car accident injury cases when the defendant cannot participate in proceedings or receive a summons and other court documents because they are actively serving in the military.
According to Washington law, “if a person entitled to bring an action dies before the expiration of the time limited…and the cause of action survives,” that person’s legal representatives can bring a lawsuit on the deceased person’s behalf after the statute of limitations expires, but a lawsuit must be brought within one year of the person’s death.
A court might agree to toll the statute of limitations for a car accident based on coexisting disabilities when an accident victim suffers severe or catastrophic injuries. Some car accidents cause far more extensive injuries than others. If your attorney can provide evidence to the court that your injury prevented you from filing an injury claim, the court might grant an extension. Some examples of car accident injuries that might cause coexisting disabilities for some time include severe burns or severe internal organ damage. In these cases a doctor might medically induce a coma, leaving an accident victim unable to bring a claim until they recover.
Delayed Discovery of Injury
Washington law also allows for delayed discovery. After being involved in a car accident, you might not realize the extent of your injuries. Further, some injuries cause chronic complications, but might not show symptoms for weeks or months. In most cases, the statute of limitations will start from the date of your car accident, but in some cases, the statute of limitations won’t begin until you discover your injuries. Delayed discovery of an injury is far more common in medical malpractice cases or product liability cases than in car accident claims. Yet, delayed discovery can occur after a car accident.
For example, if a victim, especially a young child, sustains a head injury, they may not show obvious symptoms right away. The force of impact of a severe car accident can cause a traumatic brain injury (TBI). Many mild TBIs, commonly called concussions, heal without intervention in a few months and don’t have lifelong consequences. But children’s brains don’t fully develop until after age 20, so mild concussions can sometimes impact development. Parents might not notice the effects of the injury until their toddler, young child, or teen misses important developmental milestones.
Car accident victims of all ages with severe TBIs might experience delayed symptoms including struggles with memory, reasoning, sensations, sight, and balance, as well as personality changes and aggressive behavior. Victims and doctors struggle to diagnose TBIs, making them a common reason for delayed discovery to apply to a car accident.
Don’t Wait Too Long to File Your Claim
If you don’t bring a lawsuit within the statute of limitations for your car accident, you risk losing your chance to recover damages for injuries and related losses, unless you can prove that you qualify for one of the previously listed exceptions. If you try to bring a lawsuit when the statute of limitations has run out, it’s likely the defense will file a motion to dismiss the case and the court will likely grant it. Although exceptions exist, a judge has discretionary power to decide whether or not to hear your case.
Not only should you make sure that you file your car accident claim before the statute of limitations runs out, but you should consult a lawyer as soon as possible. As time goes by, you lose advantages that can help support your case. Some potential challenges you might face by waiting too long include:
- Inadequate documentation. As time progresses, it becomes harder for your lawyer to secure the documentation needed to support your case. This includes copies of medical records, police reports, and other documents relevant to your car accident.
- Diminishing evidence. Evidence related to your car accident can disappear and decay over time. Your attorney will likely hire an investigator to uncover all the facts of your car accident, but when too much time passes it makes gathering evidence more difficult and costly.
- Unreliable witnesses. It’s likely one or more witnesses stopped at the scene of your car accident; they might have even spoken to the police. But tracking down witnesses after time has passed is challenging, sometimes impossible, and their memories of the event aren’t as reliable.
The best way to ensure you get the compensation you deserve for your car accident injuries is to hire an experienced car accident lawyer who understands how Washington statutes of limitations apply to your case and who can help you with your claim as soon as possible.