After any kind of traffic accident in North Carolina, if you've been injured and/or incurred significant vehicle damage, you may want to explore your options for holding the at-fault driver financially responsible for your losses. In this article, we'll discuss a few North Carolina laws that could have a big impact on your case.
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.)
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, motorcycle rider, bicyclist, 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.
"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 he or she is 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 7 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. Bottom line: While this antiquated rule is harsh and unforgiving, you will not recover unless the other driver is 100% at fault.
Car insurance is certain to play a part in any claim that's made after a car accident. North Carolina, like most states, requires vehicle owners to maintain certain minimum amounts of 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 to any potential car accident case.