What is the statute of limitations for suing after a car accident? What options do I have if it has passed?
In every state, there is a time limit on filing a lawsuit in civil court. These deadlines are set by law, hence the name “statute of limitations.” Different kinds of cases have different deadlines, but typically each state has a specific deadline for personal injury cases, and a car accident lawsuit would be subject to that time limit.
The amount of time a prospective personal injury plaintiff has to file a lawsuit varies pretty significantly. For example, in Kentucky, Louisiana, and Tennessee, an injured person only has one year to get their lawsuit filed after the underlying accident. In Maine, the time limit is six years. Most states’ deadlines are somewhere in between: California’s is two years, New York’s is three years, and Florida’s is four. (Check out "Car Accident Laws in Your State".)
If you miss the statute of limitations window, you may not have many options when it comes to a car accident lawsuit. It’s true that most states have carved out certain exceptions that could extend the time limit in injury cases, where the person who is trying to file the lawsuit did not immediately discover (and could not have reasonably discovered) that they were injured, or did not understand the source of the harm right away.
An example of this “discovery” exception is a medical malpractice case, where a surgeon leaves an instrument inside a patient, but the wrongdoing is not discovered until months or even years later. In that case, the statute of limitations “clock” likely would not start running until the malpractice was discovered, not when it occurred. But it’s difficult to see how the discovery exception might apply in a car accident case. If you’ve been in a car accident, you obviously know about it, and a reasonable person would be expected to recognize any resulting injury and seek proper medical attention.
All of this is to say that if you’ve been in a car accident, even if you’re pretty sure that your case will be resolved via an insurance settlement, pay attention to the personal injury statute of limitations in your state. You always want to have the option of filing a lawsuit in your back pocket, not just as a bargaining chip during settlement negotiations, but as a way of ensuring that all of your legal options are preserved, and your rights are protected.