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Time Limits for Car Accident Claims: The Statute of Limitations

If you've been involved in a car accident, it's important to understand the legal process and your legal rights. Key to this understanding is the concept of the statute of limitations.

This legal rule sets a time limit within which you must take legal action to seek compensation for a potential claim, including:

  • Personal injury
  • Property damage
  • Wrongful death

Understanding the Statute of Limitations

The statute of limitations for car accidents varies from state to state. For instance, Nevada law has a two-year statute of limitations for personal injury claims. It has a three-year limit for property damage claims. This means that you have a specific amount of time from the date of the accident to file a lawsuit against the at-fault party.

Time Limits for Different Types of Claims

Different types of cases have different statutes of limitations. The time limits under state law for car accidents usually differ from those for other types of injury cases, such as medical malpractice claims.

Personal Injury Statute of Limitations

For personal injury cases, the time limit usually begins from the date of the injury or when the injury was discovered. For property damage claims, the clock usually starts ticking from the date the damage occurred.

Car accident cases involve both personal injury and property damage claims, so you may be dealing with different statutes of limitations in connection with the same car accident.

Wrongful Death Statute of Limitations

For wrongful death claims, the time limit typically starts from the date of the individual's death. This might be later than the date of the accident.

Suppose a car accident victim initially survives the accident. They later die from their injuries. In that case, the clock for the wrongful death claim would start from the day of the person's death rather than the accident date.

As an example, in California, the statute of limitations for a wrongful death claim is two years from the date of the person's death. If a person gets into a car accident on January 1, 2023, but passes away from their injuries on February 1, 2023, the deadline to file a wrongful death claim would be February 1, 2025.

Medical Malpractice Statute of Limitations

Medical malpractice claims may have a different statute of limitations entirely. Medical malpractice refers to a situation where a patient is harmed by a doctor or other medical professional who fails to perform their medical duties competently.

In New York, the statute of limitations for medical malpractice is typically two and a half years from the date of the malpractice or from the end of continuous treatment rendered by the party or entity you intend to sue for malpractice.

There's a concept called the discovery rule which could extend this time limit. If a patient discovers an injury caused by malpractice later on, such as a surgical instrument left inside their body, the statute of limitations might not start until the patient discovered or reasonably should have discovered this injury.

Exceptions to the Time Limit Rule

There are situations where the statute of limitations for car accident claims can be "tolled" or paused. This might occur if the injured victim is a minor or mentally incapacitated. Tolling may also apply if the at-fault driver leaves the state for a period of time before a lawsuit can be filed.

Tolling Due to a Minor or Mentally Incapacitated Plaintiff

Imagine that a 15-year-old suffers serious injuries in a car accident caused by a negligent driver in Nevada. Under normal circumstances, Nevada's statute of limitations would require the filing of a personal injury claim within two years of the accident.

However, since the injured party is a minor, the statute of limitations is tolled or paused until the minor turns 18. Only then would the two-year period start running. This gives the now-adult victim until their 20th birthday to file a lawsuit.

Tolling Due to an At-Fault Party Leaving the State 

Suppose you're injured in a car accident in Nevada and plan to file a lawsuit against the at-fault driver. Before you can take legal action, the driver moves out of state for a year.

In this case, the state law may allow for the statute of limitations to be tolled for the time the defendant was out of the state. This means if the statute of limitations was two years and the at-fault driver was gone for one year, you would effectively have three years from the date of the accident to file your lawsuit.

Time Limits for Accident Claims Against Government Entities

If your auto accident involved a government employee or a motorist driving a government vehicle, different rules may apply. Often, you have a shorter amount of time to initiate a legal claim against a government entity.

This is because government entities are protected by sovereign immunity. This is an old legal doctrine that protects the government from lawsuits without its consent.

Over time, many jurisdictions have waived this immunity to a certain degree, allowing citizens to file lawsuits for damages caused by negligence of government employees or agencies. However, they usually impose stricter rules and shorter timelines to do so.

These specific and often more strict rules are encapsulated in what is commonly referred to as tort claim acts or government claim acts. Typically, these require you to first file a claim with the appropriate government agency before you can initiate a lawsuit.

The time limit to file this initial claim is often much shorter than the typical statute of limitations for personal injury or property damage cases. For example, in California, you have just six months from the date of the accident to file a claim if it involves a state or local government agency. In contrast, you generally have two years to file a personal injury lawsuit against a private individual.

If you miss this initial deadline, you might lose your right to obtain compensation from the government entity entirely. This is true regardless of how strong your case is.

When To Contact a Car Accident Attorney

Time is of the essence when it comes to legal action for car accidents. The statute of limitations imposes a strict limit. If you fail to file your lawsuit within this time, you may lose your right to compensation from the at-fault driver's insurance company.

To understand the specifics of your case, consult with a car accident attorney. They can:

  • Provide legal advice
  • Help you with the insurance claim process
  • Ensure your claim is filed within the required time

An attorney can also help with a case evaluation to assess the potential compensation for medical bills, pain and suffering, lost wages, and other damages.

Always consult with a personal injury attorney to understand your state's specific laws. Protect your legal rights and ensure you receive fair compensation for your injuries and damages.

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