Tennessee Car Accident Laws

Rules for reporting a car accident in Tennessee, the deadline for filing a car accident lawsuit in the state's courts, and more.

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

Tennessee's Vehicle Code includes a fairly broad definition of what constitutes a car accident: "any collision or crash, regardless of the degree of care exercised by the drivers involved or whether it was the result of criminal conduct."

If you've been injured or had your vehicle damaged in any kind of traffic accident in Tennessee, there are a few state laws that could have a big impact on any car accident claim you decide to make, including:

  • the statute of limitations deadlines for filing lawsuits over car accident injuries or vehicle damage in Tennessee's courts
  • when you're required to report a car accident in Tennessee, and
  • how Tennessee's "modified comparative fault" rule might come into play in a car accident case.

The Tennessee Car Accident Statute of Limitations

A "statute of limitations" is a state law that sets a strict time limit on your right to bring a lawsuit to court.

(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.)

In Tennessee, there are a few different lawsuit filing rules that could come into play after a vehicle accident.

First, for car accident injuries, anyone hurt in the crash—whether a driver, passenger, motorcycle rider, bicyclist, electric scooter rider, or pedestrian—must file a lawsuit against the person who allegedly caused the accident within one year, according to Tennessee Code section 28-3-104.

Second, if the car accident caused someone's death, and their family or a representative wants to bring a wrongful death claim, that case is subject to the same one-year filing deadline. The only difference is that for these cases, the "clock" starts running on the day of the accident victim's death, which could be later than the date of the accident itself.

Finally, if anyone had their vehicle or other property damaged as a result of a car accident in Tennessee, they must get their lawsuit filed against any potential defendant within three years of the date of the accident, according to section 28-3-105 of the Tennessee Code.

Whichever deadline applies, if you try to file your car accident lawsuit after the applicable time limit has passed, you can count on the defendant (the person you're trying to sue) pointing out that discrepancy to the court as part of a motion to dismiss. The court will almost certainly grant the motion (unless some rare exception applies to extend the filing deadline), and that will be the end of your case. That's why it's crucial to understand how the statute of applies to your situation.

Even if you're confident that your case will be resolved through the car insurance claim process, you'll want to leave yourself plenty of time to file a lawsuit in case you need to—if for no other reason than that you'll have more leverage during settlement talks. If you think you might be running up against the filing deadline, you may want to contact an experienced Tennessee car accident attorney.

What Are the Minimum Car Insurance Requirements In Tennessee?

Tennessee doesn't technically require that vehicle owners carry car insurance, but under the Tennessee Financial Responsibility Law, you must establish your ability to pay for losses (injuries, vehicle damage, and so on) resulting from any car accident you cause. Most Tennessee vehicle owners comply with this state law by purchasing car insurance coverage. Learn more about Tennessee's car insurance rules.

How Does Fault Work After a Tennessee Car Accident?

Like most states, Tennessee follows a traditional "fault"-based system when it comes to liability for injuries, vehicle damage, and other losses resulting from a crash. So, the person who was at fault for the car accident is also on the financial hook for any resulting harm. From a practical standpoint, that usually means the at-fault driver's insurance carrier will cover the losses of anyone harmed in the accident (physically or financially) up to the driver's liability coverage limits.

Learn more about proving fault for a car accident.

What Kinds of Compensation Can I Get After a Car Accident In Tennessee?

Anyone injured in a car accident is entitled to recover compensation for the full spectrum of their crash-related losses (called "damages" in the language of the law) in Tennessee. That includes:

  • compensation for medical treatment made necessary by the accident
  • lost income and other financial harm caused by the accident, including the claimant's inability to work because of their injuries, and
  • the claimant's mental and physical pain and suffering in the wake of the car accident and resulting injuries.

In states that follow a no-fault car insurance system, anyone injured in a car accident must file a claim with their own insurer, regardless of who caused the accident, and compensation for pain and suffering isn't an option, at least not initially. Tennessee isn't a no-fault car insurance state.

Comparative Negligence in Tennessee Car Accident Cases

Suppose you're seriously injured in a Tennessee car accident, and you take your case to court. The jury, after hearing all the evidence, decides that the other driver was responsible for the accident—but that you too bear part of the blame. What happens next? How does this verdict affect your right to compensation?

Tennessee is a "modified comparative negligence" state. This means you can still recover damages in a car-accident-related lawsuit, but your award will be reduced according to your share of negligence—and importantly, your share of liability must be less than 50 percent in order to recover from other at-fault parties.

For instance, suppose that the jury determines that your injuries, pain and suffering, and other losses total $100,000. However, the jury also thinks that you were 10 percent responsible for the crash. In that situation, the total amount of your damages, $100,000, is reduced by 10 percent, or $10,000, leaving you with a total award of $90,000.

The comparative negligence rule binds Tennessee judges and juries (if your car accident case makes it to court), and it will also guide a car insurance claims adjuster when he or she is evaluating your case. 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.

Reporting a Car Accident in Tennessee

According to Tennessee Code section 55-12-104, the driver of any motor vehicle involved in an accident in the state must report the crash in writing to the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security within 20 days if:

  • any person was killed or injured in the accident
  • the accident resulted in damage to the property of any person (including the reporting driver) in excess of $1,500, or
  • the accident resulted in damage to state or local government property in excess of $400.

You can report the crash using this Owner/Driver Report from the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security.

Getting Help After a Tennessee Car Accident

Understanding the state laws that could come into play after a car accident in Tennessee is important, but if you've been hurt in a car accident, you might need more than just information. Learn more about when you might need a lawyer after a car accident, and use the features right on this page if you're ready to connect with a Tennessee car accident lawyer in your area.

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