Hawaii Personal Injury Laws and Statutes of Limitations

Here’s an overview of the laws and rules that could affect your personal injury lawsuit in the Rainbow State.

By , Attorney UC Law San Francisco
Updated by Dan Ray, Attorney University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Law
Updated 3/26/2024

Hawaii is a paradise to many people, but even in paradise, accidents and other mishaps happen. Whether you live in Hawaii or are just visiting, if you've been injured in an incident that wasn't your fault, you might have a personal injury claim. Personal injury law (also called "tort" law) allows an injured person to get financial compensation (called "damages") from the person or entity who caused the harm.

Here's a rundown of important personal injury laws in Hawaii, including how much time you have to file a personal injury lawsuit, what happens when you're partly to blame for your injuries, and whether Hawaii has limits—called "caps"—on personal injury damages.

Where Do I File a Personal Injury Lawsuit in Hawaii?

Many types of accidents and intentional torts can lead to personal injury lawsuits, including:

A personal injury lawsuit is a type of civil (noncriminal) lawsuit. Most often, civil lawsuits financially compensate a person who was harmed. Criminal cases punish the wrongdoer with penalties like jail time or fines.

In Hawaii, civil lawsuits involving damages of up to $40,000 are heard in Regular Claims Court, a division of the District Courts. Jury trials and civil cases involving damages exceeding $40,000 are held in the Circuit Courts. Disputes involving damages of $5,000 or less can be filed in Small Claims Court.

Not all disputes over injuries end up in court. You might be able to resolve your personal injury case through an insurance claim. If you're unable to settle your insurance claim or your claim is denied, you can file a personal injury lawsuit.

How Do I File a Personal Injury Lawsuit in Hawaii?

You start a personal injury lawsuit by filing a complaint against the person or entity that harmed you (the "defendant") in court. Your complaint should explain what happened and why the defendant owes you compensation for your injuries and losses.

You'll need to serve a copy of the complaint and a summons on the defendant. The defendant then has a chance to file an answer to your complaint.

If you're representing yourself in a civil court case in Hawaii, you're called a "self-represented litigant" (SRL). The Hawai'i State Judiciary has links and resources for SRLs, but SRLs have to know and follow all of the same laws and rules as lawyers who represent clients.

Personal injury lawsuits are often complex and time-consuming. A lawyer can answer your questions and take on the burdens of preparing, filing, and handling your case in court. Most personal injury lawyers offer free consultations and take cases on a contingent fee basis, meaning you won't owe a fee unless you get a settlement or court award.

Hawaii's Statutes of Limitations for Personal Injury Lawsuits

Hawaii, like all states, has laws called "statutes of limitations" that put deadlines on how long you have to file personal injury lawsuits. The consequence for missing the deadline is severe—you'll almost certainly lose your right to file a lawsuit and get compensation for your injuries.

Hawaii's General Rule: Two Years

You've typically got two years to file a lawsuit for "damage or injury to persons" in Hawaii. (Haw. Rev. Stat. § 657-7 (2024).) In most cases, the two-year limitation period starts running on the date of your injury.

What if you don't know right away that you're injured? In that case, Hawaii's "discovery rule" might give you more time to file your case. Under the discovery rule, the applicable statute of limitations doesn't start to run until the date you discover, or if you'd been reasonably careful you should have discovered, your injury. (See Pele Defense Fund v. Paty, 73 Haw. 578, 598 (1992).

If you think the discovery rule might apply in your case, expect a vigorous challenge from the defendant. You'll want experienced legal counsel to represent you and make the arguments to the court.

Special Limitations Periods and Rules

Some types of personal injury lawsuits have different limitation periods or special rules that apply.

Medical malpractice. Medical malpractice lawsuits usually must be filed no later than two years after you first discover or reasonably should have discovered your injury. In medical malpractice cases, another Hawaii rule limits the time you have to discover your injury. Called a "statute of repose," this rule says you can't file suit more than six years after the date the malpractice occurred—regardless of whether you discovered your injury in time.

There's only one exception to the statute of repose. When a health care provider knew about and failed to disclose the malpractice, the statute of limitations is paused ("tolled") until you discover the malpractice—even if it takes longer than six years.

(Haw. Rev. Stat. § 657-7.3(a) (2024).)

(Learn more about Hawaii's medical malpractice laws, including the deadline for minors to sue.)

When injuries cause death. When personal injuries cause death, the injured person's surviving family members or estate might file a wrongful death lawsuit. The filing deadline is usually two years from the date of death. (Haw. Rev. Stat. § 663-3(b) (2024).)

Exceptions to the Statute of Limitations

Hawaii recognizes several exceptions that might extend the statute of limitations. Here are a few of the most common. Talk to a lawyer if you have questions about how Hawaii's statutes of limitations apply to your case.

Minors

When a person younger than 18 years old is injured, the statute of limitations doesn't begin to run until the person turns 18.

Mental Illness

If an "insane" person is injured, the filing deadline doesn't start running until the disability ends.

Imprisonment

If a prisoner serving a term of less than life is injured, the limitation clock runs from the date they're released from prison.

(Haw. Rev. Stat. § 657-13 (2024).)

Suing the State of Hawaii or a Hawaii Municipality

Filing a lawsuit against Hawaii or a Hawaii municipality isn't like suing a private individual or a business. Special rules often apply. Fail to follow those rules and you might be prohibited from suing. Here's a basic overview.

Statutes of Limitations

In most cases, you have two years to file a personal injury lawsuit against the State of Hawaii. When your claim is for medical malpractice, Hawaii's medical malpractice statute of limitation (discussed above) applies. (Haw. Rev. Stat. § 662-4 (2024).)

If you plan to sue a county or city, the state's general personal injury statute of limitations—discussed above—gives you two years to file your case in court. Note, importantly, that before you're allowed to sue a county, you first have to give written notice of your claim (discussed below).

Pre-Suit Notice of Claim

It's not clear whether state law requires you to give Hawaii written notice of your personal injury claim before you sue. But doing so is a good idea, as we'll explain. When you're planning a lawsuit against a Hawaii county, the law is clear: You first have to provide written notice of your claim.

Suing the State of Hawaii. Before you sue Hawaii for personal injury, you should first give the state's Risk Management Office (RMO) written notice of your claim. Use the online Claim for Damage or Injury form and follow RMO's instructions. The Risk Management Office will investigate and respond to your claim in about 60 days.

Why is this a good idea? Because there's a chance you'll settle your claim much more quickly than by filing suit. It's also a lot less expensive and much less hassle than a court case.

Submitting your written claim to RMO doesn't stop the statute of limitations from running. Be sure to provide your written notice as soon as possible. That way, you have ample time to file a lawsuit within the two-year limitation period if your claim doesn't settle.

Suing a Hawaii county. Within two years from the date you were injured by a county worker, you must give the county written notice of your claim. (Haw. Rev. Stat. § 46-72 (2024).) Giving written notice of your claim isn't the same as filing a lawsuit in court. Keep in mind the two-year lawsuit deadline if you're unable to settle.

What Happens If You're Partly to Blame for Your Injuries?

In some cases, the defendant might say that you're the one who's entirely or partly to blame for the accident that caused your injuries. This is a legal defense called "comparative negligence." A version of it is available in Hawaii. Here's how it works.

Hawaii Is a Modified Comparative Negligence State

Hawaii follows what's called a "modified comparative negligence" rule. Under this rule, you can recover damages if you share blame for an accident, but only when your percentage share of the negligence isn't more than the defendant's. In other words, if you're less than 51% at fault for your injuries you can collect some damages. Your percentage share of the blame simply reduces your damages by that amount. When you're 51% or more at fault for your injuries, you don't get anything.

(Haw. Rev. Stat. § 663-31(a) (2023).)

How Does Hawaii's Modified Comparative Negligence Rule Work?

Let's say you're in a car accident in Hawaii. The other driver carelessly makes a left turn and hits you. You might have been able to avoid the accident, but you were driving over the speed limit. You file a car accident lawsuit against the other driver.

The case goes all the way to trial. The jury finds the other driver 70% at fault for the accident for making an unsafe left turn. The jury finds you 30% at fault for speeding. If your damages total $100,000, you will get $70,000 ($100,000 - $30,000) because your compensation is reduced by your percentage of fault (30%). But if the jury decides that you were 51% or more at fault for the accident, you'll get nothing from the other driver.

Hawaii Is a No-Fault Car Insurance State

Hawaii has adopted a no-fault car insurance system. After most car accidents, an injured person's own insurance policy (called "personal injury protection") covers some out-of-pocket expenses like medical bills and lost income, no matter who was at fault for the accident.

You can step outside of Hawaii's no-fault system and file a personal injury lawsuit in court against the at-fault driver when the accident:

  • involves a death
  • causes serious and permanent injuries, meaning the loss of use of a part or function of the body or permanent and serious disfigurement, or
  • causes an injury that results in a payout of $5,000 or more of personal injury protection benefits.

(Haw. Rev. Stat. § 431:10C-306 (2024).)

(Learn more about Hawaii's no-fault car insurance requirements.)

Hawaii Dog Bite Laws

Hawaii holds dog owners to a high standard. A dog owner or handler is legally responsible for injuries their dog causes unless the injured person was trespassing or provoking the dog. Dog bite victims typically don't have to prove that the owner or handler knew the dog was dangerous.

(Haw. Rev. Stat. §§ 663-9, 663-9.1 (2024).)

Does Hawaii Have Caps on Personal Injury Damages?

Most states put limits, or "caps," on damages in personal injury cases. Each state makes its own rules about what kinds of damages are capped and in which kinds of cases.

Hawaii caps "pain and suffering" damages at $375,000 in most personal injury cases. The cap doesn't apply in some situations involving multiple defendants.

If you have questions about damage caps and how to value your personal injury damages, talk to a lawyer.

(Haw. Rev. Stat. §§ 663-8.7 (2023).)

Get Help With Your Personal Injury Case

If you're thinking about filing a personal injury lawsuit in Hawaii, talk to an experienced lawyer. Personal injury law and court rules are complex. If you make a mistake, like miscalculating the statute of limitations, your case will be over before it gets started.

When you're ready to move forward, here's how to find an attorney who's right for you.

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