Personal Injury

The Statute of Limitations in Car Accident Cases

By David Goguen, J.D., University of San Francisco School of Law
If you're thinking about filing a car accident lawsuit, understand the filing deadline set by a state law called the "statute of limitations."

In the days and weeks after a car accident, chances are you're assessing the consequences of the crash (in terms of your car accident injuries and vehicle damage), figuring out who might have been at fault, and considering your legal options.

A car insurance claim is certainly an option (assuming one or more drivers carries insurance), and so is taking the matter to court by filing a car accident lawsuit. But any lawsuit you decide to pursue will be governed by a filing deadline set by the "statute of limitations" in your state. In this article, we'll explain how the statute of limitations works, and we'll touch on some of the circumstances that could extend or otherwise alter the applicable filing deadline.

Statute of Limitations Basics

A statute of limitations is a state law that essentially puts an "expiration date" on your right to have the court consider any kind of civil case. Every state has passed these laws, and they impose different deadlines for different kinds of legal claims.

The statute of limitations that will apply to a lawsuit over injuries caused by a car accident is the same sort of "blanket" deadline that applies to almost all personal injury lawsuits (or all lawsuits in which the basis for liability is the fault concept known as "negligence"), including claims over slip and fall incidents, dog bites, or any other accident where one person's carelessness resulted in harm to another.

A different filing deadline will usually apply to a lawsuit over vehicle damage. These cases are governed by the statute of limitations that covers civil cases seeking compensation for damage to (or total destruction of) personal property (motor vehicles are considered personal property). Learn more about vehicle damage claims after a car accident.

Statute of Limitations: State-by-State Examples

Now that you understand what a statute of limitations is, let's look at the rules that will apply to a lawsuit filed over a car accident in a few of the more populous states.

For Injury After a Car Accident:

  • California: 2 years (California Code of Civil Procedure section 335.1)
  • Florida: 4 years (Florida Statutes section 95.11)
  • Illinois: 2 years (735 Illinois Compiled Statutes section 5/13-202)
  • New York: 3 years (New York Civil Practice Law & Rules section 214)
  • Texas: 2 years (Texas Civil Practice & Remedies Code section 16.003)

For Vehicle Damage After a Car Accident:

  • Massachusetts: 3 years (Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 260 section 2A)
  • Missouri: 5 years (Missouri Revised Statutes section 516.120)
  • New Jersey: 6 years (New Jersey Revised Statutes section 2A:14-1)
  • Ohio: 2 years (Ohio Revised Code section 2305.10)
  • Pennsylvania: 2 years (Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes Title 42 section 5524)

Lawsuits Versus Insurance Claims

It's important to note that the statute of limitations deadline only applies to the filing of a lawsuit. The insurance claim process almost always starts well before the statutory lawsuit filing deadline becomes a factor. (Learn more about reporting a car accident to your car insurance company.)

Timing-wise after a car accident, the trick is to make sure you've resolved your insurance claim (and received a settlement), or are on your way to resolution comfortably ahead of the statute of limitations deadline. Otherwise, it's a sound strategy to get your lawsuit filed ahead of the deadline, to preserve your rights in case a settlement can't be reached. (Learn why most car accident cases settle.)

Exceptions to the Statute of Limitations Deadline

In every state, special circumstances can affect the filing deadline set by the statute of limitations. These exceptions are always clearly defined by statute, and they vary from state to state, but generally, a special deadline could apply where:

  • the injured person was a minor at the time of the accident
  • the injured person was mentally incapacitated (or of "unsound mind") at the time of the accident, or
  • the person who caused the accident leaves the state for a certain amount of time (and can't be served with a lawsuit).

Learn more about extending the statute of limitations deadline for a personal injury lawsuit and what to do if you've missed the personal injury statute of limitations deadline.

If you've been involved in a car accident within the last three years, please consider taking our car accident survey so that we can include your experience in Martindale-Nolo's 2018 Car Accident Survey. Your participation will help inform others about their situation and options before dealing with their car accident.

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