North Carolina Car Accident Laws

Time limits for filing a North Carolina car accident lawsuit, how the state's contributory negligence rule affects a claim, and more.

By , J.D. · University of San Francisco School of Law

After any kind of traffic accident in North Carolina, it helps to have an understanding of the different state laws that could come into play (whether or not you end up making an insurance claim or filing a lawsuit), including:

  • the deadline for filing a car accident lawsuit in North Carolina's civil court system
  • North Carolina's claimant-unfriendly "contributory negligence" rule, which can bar any kind of financial recovery if you're partly responsible for causing the car accident, and
  • when you need to report a car accident in North Carolina.

How Does Fault Work In North Carolina Car Accident Cases?

North Carolina is a traditional "fault"-based state when it comes to financial responsibility for losses resulting from a car accident. Several states follow a "no-fault" system for car accidents, at least when it comes to car insurance, but North Carolina isn't one of them. That means, if you cause a car accident in North Carolina, you can be held responsible for all injuries and property damage.

What Car Accident Losses Are Compensated In North Carolina?

As touched on above, the person who is at fault for a car accident in North Carolina is on the financial hook for the full spectrum of resulting losses ("damages" in the language of the law), including:

  • the cost of medical treatment for injuries resulting from the accident
  • cost of repairing (or "total loss" compensation for) any vehicle damaged in the crash
  • mental and physical pain and suffering of those injured in the accident, especially when it comes to the impact of their injuries on their lives, and
  • lost income and other financial losses that can be traced to the accident and its effects.

Of course, from a practical standpoint the at-fault driver's car insurance company will absorb most of these losses, up to the driver's liability coverage limits.

As we'll discuss later, things can turn pretty quickly against a car accident claimant in North Carolina if they share any amount of fault for a car accident.

The North Carolina Car Accident Statute of Limitations

A "statute of limitations" is a state law that sets a time limit on a potential plaintiff's right to bring a lawsuit. These deadlines vary depending on the kind of harm you suffered and/or the kind of case you want to file.

(Note: the statute of limitations does not apply to a car insurance claim. Any insurance company, whether your own or the other driver's, is going to require you to make a claim—or at least give the insurer notice of an incident that could trigger a claim—"promptly" or "within a reasonable time" after the accident. That usually means a matter of days, or a few weeks at most.)

North Carolina is like most states in that the statute of limitations that applies to a car accident lawsuit will usually be the same as the one that applies to most personal injury cases.

Specifically, North Carolina General Statutes section 1-52 says that a civil lawsuit for injury or damage to property must be filed within three years. In the context of a car accident case, that means if anyone was hurt in the crash—whether a driver, passenger, motorcyclist, bicyclist, electric scooter rider, or pedestrian—or had their vehicle damaged, they must get their lawsuit filed against any potential defendant within three years. The clock starts running on the date of the accident.

If the car accident resulted in someone's death, and the family or representative of the deceased wants to bring a wrongful death claim against the person who caused the crash, the filing deadline is two years, and the "clock" starts running on the day of the deceased person's death, which could be later than the date of the accident itself. (The two-year statute of limitations for wrongful death lawsuits is set by North Carolina General Statutes section 1-53.)

Having read all this, you may be wondering what happens if you try to file your car accident lawsuit after the statute of limitations deadline has passed. In that situation, the person you're trying to sue (the defendant) will file a motion to dismiss the case, and the court will almost certainly grant a dismissal (unless a rare exception applies to extend the deadline). That's why it's crucial to understand the statute of limitations and how it applies to your situation.

Finally, from a strategic standpoint, it's always a good idea to leave yourself plenty of time to file a lawsuit, even if you think your case will be resolved through a car insurance settlement. Keeping all your options on the table will give you more leverage during settlement talks. So if the statute of limitations filing deadline is close, it may be time to talk with an experienced North Carolina car accident attorney.

North Carolina's "Contributory Negligence" Rule

"Shared fault" refers to the situation in which more than one party is to blame for causing an accident. North Carolina is one of the few states that still follows the doctrine known (in legalese) as "contributory negligence." Under this extreme and often unfair rule, in a car accident case you are completely barred from recovering any compensation if you have any share of fault for the accident.

This is important because not only does the contributory negligence rule bind North Carolina judges and juries (if your car accident case makes it to court), it will also guide a car insurance claims adjuster when they're evaluating your case. A claims adjuster makes decisions based on what is likely to happen in court, so if it looks like you share any amount of blame or the accident, get ready for the adjuster to play hardball during settlement negotiations.

Also keep in mind that since there is no empirical means of allocating fault, any assignment of liability will ultimately come down to your ability to negotiate with a claims adjuster or to persuade a judge or jury.

An example will help explain how North Carolina's contributory negligence rule applies in real life. Let's say you're in a car accident where the other driver turned left directly in front of you, but it's also determined that you were driving seven miles per hour over the posted speed limit. After a civil trial, the jury determines that the other driver is 90% at fault, while the fact that you were speeding makes you 10% at fault. Under North Carolina's contributory negligence rules, you are barred from recovering anything at all from the other driver. Change those numbers to 99% and 1%, and you are still barred from recovering compensation under this harsh and antiquated rule.

Reporting a Car Accident in North Carolina

According to North Carolina General Statutes section 20-166.1, any driver involved in a "reportable accident" must immediately report the crash to law enforcement. North Carolina General Statutes section 20-4.01 defines a "reportable accident" as one that involves:

  • death or injury of any person
  • total property damage of $1,000 or more, and/or
  • property damage of any amount to a vehicle seized from a person charged with an impaired driving offense.

The driver must report the accident to the police department, if the accident occurs within a city or town. If the accident did not occur within a city or town, the driver must report the accident to the office of the county sheriff, the State Highway Patrol, or other qualified rural police in the county where the accident occurred.

Learn more about what to do after a North Carolina car accident (from the state's Department of Insurance).

North Carolina Auto Insurance Requirements

Car insurance is certain to play a part in any claim made after a car accident in North Carolina, which, like most states, requires vehicle owners to maintain certain minimum amounts of insurance coverage in order to:

  • obtain license plates, and
  • operate a vehicle legally on the state's roads and highways.

So, understanding the North Carolina auto insurance rules is essential when you've been involved in a car accident, and certainly if you're thinking about making an injury claim.

Getting Help After a North Carolina Car Accident

It always makes sense to arm yourself with a basic understanding of the laws that could come into play if you're involved in a car accident in North Carolina, but when you're actually injured in a crash, you may want to discuss your situation (and your options) with an experienced legal professional.

Learn more about when you might need a lawyer after a car accident, and how to find the right attorney for an injury case. You can also use the features on this page to connect with a North Carolina injury lawyer in your area.

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