Personal Injury

The Statute of Limitations in Accident Cases

By David Goguen, J.D., University of San Francisco School of Law
If you've been in a car accident and you're thinking about filing a lawsuit, understand the filing deadline -- set by a state law called the "statute of limitations" -- and how it applies to your case.

In the days and weeks after a car accident, chances are you're assessing the consequences of the crash (in terms of 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 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 alter the filing deadline.

Statute of Limitations Basics

A statute of limitations is a state law that puts an "expiration date" on your right to have the court consider a civil case. Every state has passed these laws, and they effectively impose lawsuit filing 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 all personal injury lawsuits (or all lawsuits in which the basis for liability is "negligence"), including claims over slip and fall incidents, dog bites, or any other incident where one person's carelessness resulted in harm to another. In other words, no state has a separate statute of limitations for car accident injuries.

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).

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.

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: Can I extend the statute of limitations deadline?

Missing the Statute of Limitations Deadline

If you miss the lawsuit filing deadline set by the statute of limitations in your state, you've likely lost your right to a legal remedy over your car accident. Learn more: What if I miss the statute of limitations deadline?

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