After a traffic accident in Washington, D.C., what happens? In this article, we'll look at how D.C. laws affect what you do in the aftermath of an auto accident, including how the District of Columbia's no-fault car insurance system works. And, if your case is exempt from no-fault, we'll cover a few key D.C. laws that could have an impact on a car accident liability claim or lawsuit. (For detailed information on how accident settlements work and how to go about putting a dollar value on your claim, see Car Accident Settlements.)
If you're involved in a car accident in D.C. and you've got car insurance in the district, the most important thing to understand is that any injury claim you make will start (and likely end) with your own car insurance carrier, under your own policy. That's because D.C. follows a no-fault system, which in most cases precludes making a claim against another driver. As the name suggests, "no-fault" does not take into account who might have been at fault for the accident.
In some cases, you might be able to step outside the confines of the no-fault system. In D.C., there are two thresholds for doing so, and meeting either one will let you shed the restrictions of no-fault and file a liability claim or personal injury lawsuit against the other driver:
Learn more about How No Fault Car Insurance Works.
If your claim does meet one of the two thresholds for stepping outside of the no-fault car insurance system, you need to understand the time limit for filing a lawsuit over your car accident injuries.
In Washington, D.C., you have three years after a car accident occurs to file a lawsuit for personal injuries or for damage to property (DC Stat. 12-301).
Note: If you've been in an accident involving a government vehicle, employee, or property, you’ll need to file an incident claim with the right government agency in order to protect your rights -- and you’ll need to do it quickly. Our article on Accidents Involving the Government: Claim Basics provides more information on personal injury claims against government entities.
In most states, when a driver is partially at fault for causing an accident, he or she can still recover compensation from other at-fault drivers, although the amount of recoverable damages is usually reduced. Washington, D.C., however, follows a stricter rule.
The District of Columbia is one of the few places left in the nation where courts follow a "contributory negligence" rule. In these states, you can only recover in a personal injury lawsuit if you bear no fault whatsoever for causing the accident that injured you.
Suppose that you are injured in a crash with another driver. You take your case to court, where the jury decides that the total amount of your losses from the crash -- your medical bills, lost wages, pain and suffering, and all your other "damages" -- add up to $100,000. However, the jury also decides, based on the evidence, that you were 10 percent at fault for the crash. Under D.C.'s contributory negligence rule, that 10 percent of fault the jury ascribed to you means that your damages award drops to zero, and you’ll recover nothing.
This is a tough rule to beat, and it makes many people think twice before filing a personal injury lawsuit in D.C. It's wise to talk to an attorney about your chances if you're thinking about filing a lawsuit after a car accident.
Washington, D.C. requires drivers to carry minimum amounts and types of insurance, and those rules can affect your car accident case. For more information on D.C.'s insurance requirements, including a closer look at the district's no-fault rules, see our companion article, Car Insurance Laws in D.C.