The statute of limitations in a car accident claim can be anywhere from a few months to several years, depending on where the crash happened and who is liable to you for damages. You must comply with the statute of limitations deadline to recover compensation for your injuries. The most reliable way to ensure compliance is to hire an experienced car accident lawyer to handle your claim.
Statute of Limitations Basics
A statute of limitations is a law setting a deadline for taking legal action, after which a court will dismiss your claim as untimely. It ensures the resolution of legal disputes while evidence and witness memories are fresh. Without a statute of limitations, courts would have to contend with claims from long ago that lack reliable evidentiary support.
Every state has a statute of limitations on its books. The deadlines set by those laws vary significantly from state to state. They can also vary within a state based on the nature of a claim and the identity of the party sued.
For example, Florida recently amended its statute of limitations to require filing car accident claims based on negligence within two years of a crash. But the amendment left unchanged the provision of Florida’s law setting a four-year deadline for filing a car accident lawsuit against an automotive manufacturer for defects in a vehicle or vehicle part that caused a crash. It also did not amend Florida’s three-year statute of limitation deadline for personal injury claims filed against a government entity.
Pennsylvania and New Jersey, in contrast, both set a two-year deadline on filing a lawsuit for personal injury lawsuits, including those arising out of car accidents. In both states, however, if a government entity or employee is at-fault for a crash, you must provide notice of your claim to the government no later than six months after the accident to preserve your right to sue.
Other states have similar variations in their laws. Depending on where you live, who you want to sue, and what your lawsuit claims, you could have anywhere from a few months to up to six years to take legal action in a car accident case. But state to state variations aside, the consequence for missing the deadline set by a statute of limitations is usually the same everywhere: a court will likely dismiss your case, and you’ll lose your right to seek compensation.
Consult with a knowledgeable lawyer soon after your accident to find out the applicable statute of limitations in your jurisdiction and ensure you don’t miss it.
Deadline Suspended for Child Victim
Children under 18 usually lack the legal right to commence a lawsuit. For that reason, most states suspend (or toll) the statute of limitations for children injured in a car accident until they turn 18. Child car accident victims can wait until then to file suit.
But they don’t have to. States also allow parents to sue on their child’s behalf immediately after a car accident. Car accident lawyers frequently recommend taking that route because prompt legal action often leads to the most favorable and efficient outcomes.
Deadline Suspended for Legally Incapacitated Victim
State laws prevent some adults from filing lawsuits on their own, deeming them legally incapable of making informed, responsible decisions. Legal incapacity could happen, for example, if you suffered a traumatic brain injury in a car accident that left you unconscious or severely impaired and unable to care for yourself.
Like how they treat child victims, most states suspend the statute of limitations for a legally incapacitated victim, at least temporarily. The deadline clock begins or resumes running once the incapacity ends or a legally authorized representative can act on the victim’s behalf.
The Discovery Rule
Sometimes, car accident victims do not know they’ve suffered harm and can sue for damages. For example, they may have gone to the doctor after an accident and received a clean bill of health, only to learn years later that the crash triggered a slow spinal deterioration that will eventually paralyze them. Or, they may not have realized they could sue for damages because an at-fault party covered up wrongful actions that caused the accident.
Most states recognize it would not be fair to deny a car accident victim their day in court in those circumstances simply because the deadline had passed for taking legal action. Under various legal theories generally referred to as a discovery rule, they usually delay the running of the statute of limitations clock in such cases until a crash victim knows or could discover through reasonable investigation that a right to file a claim exists.
Why Does It Pay to Hire a Lawyer Immediately?
The statute of limitations sets the absolute latest date you could file a car accident lawsuit. But that doesn’t mean you should wait until then to take action. In most cases, it pays to hire an experienced car accident lawyer as soon as possible after your crash. Here’s why.
A Lawyer Can Protect Your Rights From the Get-Go
Once you hire a car accident lawyer, you can rest easy knowing your rights are protected. The lawyer can immediately act as your representative dealing with insurance companies who may owe you money for your losses.
You can stop worrying about fielding calls from insurance adjusters while the lawyer ensures you receive fair treatment from your auto insurance carrier and investigates potential claims under the at-fault party’s liability policy.
A car accident lawyer can also represent your interests in responding to requests from official investigators. And the lawyer can negotiate on your behalf with hospital billing departments to buy you time to pay medical debt until you’ve received money from a settlement or court award.
In addition, a car accident attorney can immediately begin guiding you through this challenging time of your life. Lawyers frequently act as advisors who help clients like you make big life and financial decisions that could affect their rights. Having helped many people overcome challenges similar to yours, a lawyer can step into the role of the trusted ally and advocate who has your back and watches out for your interests so that you can have the time and space you need to heal and rebuild.
A Lawyer Can Investigate Your Car Accident While Evidence is Fresh
Once hired, a lawyer can begin investigating your car accident to determine how it happened and who should bear financial responsibility to you. The sooner an attorney can start locating and collecting evidence, the better. Critical information like traffic camera footage or the at-fault driver’s cell phone data can get deleted if not preserved as soon as possible. And witnesses’ recollections of the crash can begin to fade or become distorted as time passes.
Quick action by a car accident attorney can make the difference between having an average case and a bulletproof one. It can secure essential evidence proving the liability of a party who might otherwise have gone overlooked. But an attorney can’t begin building your case until you take the critical step of reaching out and hiring them.
A Lawyer Can Evaluate Your Current and Future Damages
You don’t need to wait until you’re deep in a financial hole after a car accident to hire a lawyer to pull you out. Skilled car accident attorneys can immediately begin calculating your damages and taking steps to get you money not just for past expenses but also for your future needs.
As the victim of a car accident, you may have the right to receive compensation from liable parties for a broad range of physical, emotional, and financial harm you’ve suffered.
Someone at fault for your accident or an insurance company could owe you payment for your:
- Medical expenses related to treating your injuries and any future health complications
- Costs for repairing or replacing your damaged vehicle or other property
- Other expenses like hiring help with transportation and childcare while you heal
- Lost income and job benefits from missing work
- Lost future earning capacity or opportunities due to a temporary or permanent disability
- Physical pain from your car accident injury or medical treatments
- Emotional difficulties caused by the accident or your injuries
- Diminished quality and enjoyment of life
You might also have the legal right to seek an award of punitive damages if an at-fault party’s malicious or extremely reckless actions caused your crash. A car accident lawyer evaluates the details of your case to identify every penny of compensatory damages you could claim, ensuring your claim leaves no losses unaddressed.
A Lawyer Can Select and Execute an Effective Legal Strategy
A car accident attorney’s primary mission is to get you as much money as possible as efficiently as possible. The more strategic options the attorney has, the better your chances of a favorable outcome. And in general, hiring an attorney early after your accident preserves the greatest number of options.
After assessing your case, an experienced car accident lawyer might, for example:
- Send a written demand to the at-fault party summarizing your claim and requesting payment for your losses;
- Submit insurance claims under policies covering your losses and coordinate with the insurer to keep payment on track; or
- File a lawsuit against an at-fault party or insurance company demanding damages for your injuries.
These are just a few examples illustrating the menu of options a lawyer might select from in choosing how to get you paid as much as possible, as soon as possible. Waiting to retain a lawyer, however, it may make those options less practical or flexible.
A Lawyer Can Begin Negotiating and Litigating for You Immediately
The parties who may have liability for your damages in a car accident won’t wait until the statute of limitations deadline to begin trying to limit their financial exposure to you. Hiring a lawyer as soon as possible protects you from their maneuvers.
For example, at-fault parties and insurance companies sometimes offer quick cash settlements to unrepresented crash victims. These offers almost always fall far short of what victims deserve as compensation. Liable parties make them in hopes victims will agree before consulting an attorney, thereby sacrificing valuable rights for a fraction of what a lawyer could get them.
Retaining an attorney protects you from lowball settlement offers, and the aggressive tactics defense lawyers and insurance companies sometimes employ in presenting them. As discussed, a lawyer can calculate the value of your current and future damages, ensuring you know what your claim is worth before deciding whether to accept or reject an offer. A lawyer can also negotiate with insurers and at-fault parties to get you the best deal possible.
At-fault parties and insurers also sometimes go to court to try and protect themselves from your anticipated claim. For example, they may file for bankruptcy protection or even sue you, claiming you caused the crash.
Hiring a car accident lawyer immediately after your accident can deter liable parties from attempting those legal maneuvers. And it ensures that if they try to use the courts to avoid paying you what they owe, you’ll have a qualified legal professional in your corner fighting to get you paid.
Contact an Experienced Car Accident Lawyer Today
The statute of limitations applicable to your car accident case could range from months to years. But you can benefit by hiring a lawyer long before that deadline arrives. A skilled car accident attorney can take immediate steps to protect your rights and maximize your compensation. Contact a personal injury attorney in Philadelphia today for a free case evaluation.