The statute of limitations in a car accident lawsuit is set by state law, which means the deadline is different depending on where the crash occurred. Furthermore, some states have different deadlines for accidents that cause injury versus ones that cause a fatality and a car accident lawyer can help you understand the distinctions. Filing a claim with an insurance company also has a different timeline than filing a lawsuit against the negligent party.

The Statute of Limitations for Personal Injury in a Car Accident

Personal injury cases sometimes include both insurance claims and lawsuit filings. Both have different deadlines. Your case may involve initially filing a claim and later filing a lawsuit if the claim isn’t resolved. Some cases resolve with just an insurance claim, while others resolve with a lawsuit that is then settled out of court. A few go all the way to trial.

Ultimately, the exact path your personal injury case follows will depend on the details of your case and what works best for you. However, having information beforehand about the basic timelines can help prepare you for what to expect.

Insurance Claim Deadlines After a Car Accident

It’s best to report a car accident to either your insurance company or the other party’s insurance company as soon as possible. While most companies don’t typically provide a specific deadline for filing a claim, waiting too long could jeopardize your chances of recovering any benefits.

Neglecting to file a claim quickly can cause:

  • Questions about the legitimacy of your injuries
  • Disputes over who was responsible
  • Greater scrutiny from an adjuster
  • A longer claims process

Put simply, delays make insurance adjusters suspicious. They may think you’re exaggerating injuries or hiding information. Reporting a crash quickly can start the claims process on the right foot.

Just as there is no deadline for filing a claim, there isn’t necessarily a deadline for when an adjuster will resolve a claim. Notifying an insurance company sooner can get the process moving.

You Need a Lawyer Who Knows the Lawsuit Filing Deadlines in Your Car Accident Case

Sometimes you may need to file a personal injury lawsuit to pursue compensation.

Some reasons include:

  • Disagreement over the terms of a settlement offered by an insurer
  • Conflict over the events of the car accident or your injuries
  • Insurance companies acting in bad faith
  • Complicated cases that require a court process to sort out
  • Settlement negotiations have stalled or dragged on for too long

State deadlines for filing a personal injury lawsuit can range from a year to several years. For instance, some states allow injured accident victims four years to file a lawsuit, while other states only give you two years to submit the case.

The statute of limitations is just a deadline for filing the paperwork to sue. You don’t need to have your case resolved before this deadline expires. The deadline is simply for when the civil suit process is started.

The Statute of Limitations for Wrongful Death in a Car Accident Case

Many states have separate statute of limitations for car accidents that cause the death of a loved one. A state that allows you four years to file a personal injury lawsuit may only give you two years to file a wrongful death lawsuit.

One distinction in wrongful death cases is when the clock starts ticking for the statute of limitations. In personal injury cases, the deadline is generally dated from when the injury occurred—the date of the car accident. In wrongful death cases, the deadline is usually dated from when the person passed away from their injuries.

Consequently, if your loved one passed away two months after a car accident, the clock for filing a wrongful death lawsuit starts counting then, not from the date of the crash. However, this depends on the laws in your state. You may find it easier to understand how these cases work by speaking to an attorney after a car accident.

Wrongful Death Cases May Have Different Filing Requirements Than Personal Injury Cases

In addition to differing on when to file a wrongful death lawsuit, states can differ on who can file the case.

Some of the options include:

  • Surviving spouses
  • Parents
  • Children
  • Grandparents
  • Siblings
  • Personal representatives

Some states only allow a personal representative, like an executor, to file a wrongful death lawsuit. That representative then pursues the claim on behalf of the family. Other states allow spouses, parents, and children to file, but not grandparents or siblings.

Check with your wrongful death attorney to learn who in your family can file a wrongful death claim or lawsuit in your state. You may have more options to pursue compensation for your lost family member than you think.

Other Statutes of Limitations That Can Apply to Car Accident Cases

Not all car accident injury cases are filed as personal injury or wrongful death cases. Some filing deadlines are dictated by who the liable party is.

You may have a different statute of limitations in a car accident case if it involved:

  • A government entity
  • A defective product
  • Third-party mistakes

Suing a Government Entity After an Auto Collision

Rather than or in addition to suing another driver after a car accident, you might have grounds to sue a government entity.

That includes:

  • Cities
  • Counties
  • States

Government entities become involved in car accident cases when they acted negligently in some way, causing or contributing to a crash.

Examples are:

  • Roadway defects
  • Faulty signs or signals
  • Public transportation

For example, if a traffic signal was faulty and resulted in two cars colliding, both drivers might hold the local government responsible. Likewise, collisions with city buses or trains can involve a government entity.

Some states have separate deadlines for suing a city, county, or state. These deadlines are often shorter than those for personal injury. Depending on where you live, you may have less than a year to get your case filed.

Given that these cases often have a shorter window to file, don’t delay in reaching out to your lawyer about a government entity’s role in your accident.

Suing for a Defective Product That Led to a Car Crash

Some crashes occur because of issues with the vehicle itself, such as:

  • Tire blowouts
  • Faulty brakes
  • Defective airbags or seat belts
  • Steering problems
  • Engine failures

You can sometimes pursue this type of lawsuit in addition to another personal injury lawsuit. For example, if you were rear-ended and your airbags didn’t deploy, you might pursue both the driver who hit you and the airbag manufacturer. In some locations, that can mean having two separate statutes of limitations, one for each case.

Some cases involving a third party like a product manufacturer or auto shop can either count as a personal injury case or a product liability case. That can then affect which statute of limitations applies to your situation. For example, an equipment failure may have occurred because of an installation error or a faulty part. Installation errors could count as a personal injury case, while a faulty part is product liability.

To determine if you have a product liability case, either on its own or in addition to another lawsuit, a lawyer can evaluate your accident. Your attorney may also bring up this option as they investigate and analyze your case.

Tolling the Car Accident Statute of Limitations

In some circumstances, you can toll, or delay, the statute of limitations deadline.

This can happen in cases like:

  • Hit-and-run accidents
  • Accidents in which the victim is a minor
  • Accidents in which the victim is incapacitated

Hit-and-Run Accidents

When a driver flees the crash scene and authorities cannot locate them, it’s not fair to hold the victim to the statute of limitations, as they cannot file a lawsuit without knowing who is responsible. To keep everything fair, the law sometimes allows for tolling the statute of limitations until the other driver is found.

This doesn’t mean you can’t pursue an insurance claim. Your own insurance coverage could provide you with some benefits while the driver is located. This can allow you to pay some medical bills, lost income, and other damages.

In addition, you can explore the possibility of filing a lawsuit against another party who contributed to the crash. To return to an earlier example, the hit-and-run driver may have rear-ended you, but if your airbags didn’t deploy, you can still sue the manufacturer. Keep in mind, that deadline isn’t tolled, as you know who was responsible for the faulty airbag.

When the Victim Is a Minor?

Car accidents involving minor children are sometimes tolled until the victim can pursue legal action as an adult. One example is a teen driver who was 17 years old at the time of the collision. The deadline for a personal injury lawsuit might be tolled until they reach 18 and can file a lawsuit.

In some states, parents can file a personal injury lawsuit on behalf of their minor children, so check if this is an option before waiting to file. Don’t assume a case is tolled just because the victim was a minor.

When the Victim Is Incapacitated?

Some severe accidents leave the victim incapacitated, such as when a head injury leaves someone in a coma. In this case, they cannot take legal action for themselves, so the statute of limitations is tolled until they are capable.

Incapacitation doesn’t always mean a coma, so just like with the other scenarios, it’s best not to make assumptions. Family members can check with a lawyer about tolling due to incapacitation.

Why Is There a Statute of Limitations in Car Accident Cases?

Having a statute of limitations can feel like a restriction, but the purpose of this law is to help ensure cases are resolved quickly and fairly.

By instituting a deadline for filings, the law:

  • Forces parties involved to try to reach an agreement
  • Weeds out frivolous or needless lawsuits
  • Preserves evidence, especially witness testimony

It’s no coincidence that sometimes simply filing a lawsuit is enough to encourage insurers and liable parties to finally reach a settlement agreement with an accident victim. Having a deadline for taking additional legal action can help prevent insurance claims from dragging on.

Secondly, the statute of limitations can prevent anyone from suing someone no matter how much time has passed since an incident. Creating a set timeline for cases can therefore help reduce the number of frivolous or unnecessary lawsuits that abuse the system.

Perhaps most importantly, a statute of limitations ensures that evidence remains fresh. While your memory of your accident is clear to you, it might not stay that way. Witnesses can also forget key details. Physical evidence, like security or traffic footage, can get lost or erased. Requiring parties to act before too many years have passed can help preserve the facts of the case.

Maximum Medical Improvement Plays a Role in Your Car Accident Case

The statute of limitations is designed to allow enough time for car accident victims to reach maximum medical improvement (MMI). This is when you reach your new normal health-wise after the accident. For some, that means returning to how you were prior to the crash. For others, it means adjusting to the new consequences of a long-term injury.

Having time to reach MMI is about more than just healing. You might not even know of some costs of your accident until a year after it occurred. The statute of limitations gives you some time to determine how much your accident cost you financially. You can also project future losses based on your current situation. All of this can then inform the compensation your car accident lawyer pursues.

If You Aren’t Sure About the Statute of Limitations for Your Car Accident, You Could Reach Out to a Lawyer

Jacque D. Hawk - car accident attorney in Augusta, GA area
Jacque D. Hawk, Car Accident Lawyer in Augusta 

A lot of variables can affect the statute of limitations in a car accident lawsuit. If you have questions, you can always check with a personal injury lawyer in Augusta to learn about your state’s laws, your case’s circumstances, and your medical improvement. Once the statute of limitations expires, your chance at compensation could disappear. Ultimately, it’s better to check than to guess about the deadline in your case.