In this article, we'll look at some key Washington laws that affect your legal rights and options after a car accident. We'll discuss Washington's time limits for bringing lawsuits to court, and Washington's status as a "pure comparative negligence" state -- and how that rule affects cases in which more than one driver is found to be partly "at fault" for the crash.
(You'll find a lot more general information on traffic accident settlements, including valuation of settlement claims, in our Car Accident Settlements section.)
In the legal world, a "statute of limitations" is a law that sets a time limit on your ability to go to court and seek legal relief after you suffer some kind of harm. Every state carries these laws, and there are different time limits depending on the kind of case you're filing.
In Washington, a person who is injured or suffers property damage after a car accident has three years, starting with the date of the crash, to go to court and file a lawsuit (You can see the full text of this law at Revised Code of Washington section 4.16.080).
The three-year limit applies to when a car accident lawsuit needs to be filed, not when it needs to be resolved. Also, this three-year time limit doesn't apply to filing insurance claims. Any time limits on when you can file an insurance claim should be spelled out in your insurance policy. However, it's wise to file your insurance claims as soon as possible after a car accident, for several reasons. First, filing a claim quickly helps you get compensation sooner, and get your life back to normal. Second, filing your insurance claim promptly in one way to preserve all your options. If settlement negotiations break down, you'll still have time to file a lawsuit in court -- or to threaten to do so in order to get settlement negotiations moving again.
A car accident case in Washington is pretty straightforward, at least in theory: you are injured in an accident, you file an insurance claim or lawsuit, and you're awarded compensation for your damages. But what happens when an insurance adjuster or the court decides that you are also partly at fault for a car accident?
Washington uses a "pure comparative fault" rule to sort out injury cases in which the person filing the lawsuit also bears part of the blame for the accident. Here's how it works. Suppose that your total damages -- medical bills, lost wages, pain and suffering, and all your other losses -- comes to $10,000. However, at trial the jury decides that the other driver involved in the accident was 90 percent at fault, and you were 10 percent at fault. What happens to your $10,000 damages award?
Under the "pure comparative fault" rule, you receive the damages award minus an amount equal to the percentage of your fault. In the example above, this means you'll walk away with $9,000: the $10,000 total minus $1,000 that represents your 10 percent share of the fault.
Washington requires drivers to carry certain minimum types and amounts of car insurance coverage, which affect what happens after an accident. To learn more about these requirements, see our companion article, Car Insurance Laws in Washington.