This article explores a few of the key Arizona laws related to car accidents and settlements -- including how long you have to file a lawsuit after an accident resulting in injury or property damage, and how your case might be affected if you bear some responsibility for causing the crash. (For more in-depth information on what to expect in a car accident case, visit our Car Accident Settlements section)
In legalese, a “statute of limitations” is a deadline that dictates how long you have to file a lawsuit after suffering some kind of harm. Different deadlines exist for different types of cases.
In Arizona, you have two years to file a personal injury or property damage lawsuit after a car accident (Title 12, Article 3, Secs. 12-541, 12-542). The two-year period begins when the accident occurs.
(Note: If the government played some role in causing your accident -- the crash involved a city-owned vehicle, for example -- this state law deadline won’t apply, and you’ll likely need to get your claim filed pretty quickly. For more information, see Accidents Involving the Government: Claim Basics at our companion site, www.personalinjurylawyer.com.)
The statute of limitations only affects how long you have to bring a case to court. It does not affect how long you have to file a claim with your insurance company after you are injured or your property is damaged in a crash. For more information on insurance claim filing deadlines, check your auto insurance policy.
Two years sounds like a long time, but it can fly by after an accident. Filing your insurance claim as soon as possible after a crash protects your chance to file a lawsuit, which you may need to do if negotiations stall or break down. Once the two-year statute of limitations has expired, you’ll likely be completely barred from taking your auto accident case to court, and you’ll also lose a great deal of leverage in negotiations with an insurance carrier.
If the other driver was entirely at fault for your car accident, and you share no part of the blame, the result is usually predictable: the other driver (through their insurance carrier) will pay to compensate you for medical bills, lost wages, and other losses you suffered from the accident. But what happens if you were partly at fault for the accident?
Arizona uses a “pure comparative fault” rule to calculate damages when both parties are found to share blame for an accident. In most car accident cases, the jury is asked to calculate two things based on the evidence presented in court: the total dollar amount of damages, and the percentage of fault that belongs to each party. Under the pure comparative fault rule, the total damages amount is reduced by a percentage equal to the plaintiff’s percentage of fault.
For instance, suppose that in your case, the jury decides your total damages award should be $100,000 (including your medical bills, lost income, vehicle damage, and pain and suffering). Sounds good, right? But the jury also decides you are 40 percent responsible for the accident (maybe you were speeding). Under Arizona’s comparative fault rule, you are entitled to get 60 percent of the $100,000 total, or $60,000 -- still a large sum, but not as much as the grand total of your damages.
The comparative fault rule in Arizona applies even if you are found to be more responsible for the accident than the other driver. For instance, if the jury decides you are 90 percent at fault, you are still technically entitled to 10 percent of your total damages, but of course the other side of the coin is that you'll be on the hook for 90 percent of the other driver's damages.
(Not all states calculate comparative fault this way. Most use a “modified” comparative fault rule that only allows the plaintiff to receive damages if his or her fault was 50 percent or less. Once the plaintiff’s fault exceeds 50 percent, the damages award drops to zero in most of these states.)
Arizona’s car insurance laws may also come into play in an insurance claim or personal injury lawsuit arising from a car accident. For more information on these rules, see our companion article, Car Insurance Laws and Regulations in Arizona.