Washington Car Accident Laws

The statute of limitations deadline for filing a Washington car accident lawsuit, the state's "comparative negligence" rule, and your obligation to report a car accident in Washington.

By , J.D.
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  • After any kind of traffic accident in Washington State, if you've been injured or had your vehicle damaged, you probably want to understand your options. In this article, we'll look at the legal obligations of drivers when it comes to reporting an accident to law enforcement. But, first, we'll discuss a few Washington laws that could have a big impact on any car accident claim you decide to make, including:

    • the three-year deadline for the filing of most car accident lawsuits in Washington's civil court system, and
    • Washington's claimant-friendly "pure comparative fault" rule, which allows financial recovery when the claimant was partly (even mostly) responsible for causing the accident.

    That's the big picture in Washington. Now, let's look at the specifics.

    The Washington 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.)

    The statute of limitations for most Washington car accident lawsuits is the same as the larger one that applies to the majority of personal injury lawsuits filed in the state. Specifically, Revised Code of Washington section 4.16.080 says that an action for "injury to the person or rights of another… shall be commenced within three years." That includes any car accident injury claim brought by a driver, passenger, motorcyclist, bicyclist, electric scooter rider, or pedestrian after a traffic accident.

    Section 4.16.080 also sets a three-year deadline for the filing of "an action for taking, detaining, or injuring personal property," if you only want to file a lawsuit over vehicle damage caused by the car accident.

    Note: For injury and vehicle damage cases, the statute of limitations "clock" starts running on the date of the crash. But if someone died as a result of the accident, a wrongful death lawsuit must be filed against the at-fault driver within three years, and the "clock" starts on the date of the deceased person's death, which could be different from the date of the accident. That deadline is also set by section 4.16.080.

    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 Washington car accident attorney.

    Comparative Negligence in Washington Car Accident Cases

    Suppose you're seriously injured in a Washington 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?

    According to Revised Code of Washington section 4.22.005, Washington is a "pure 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.

    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.

    Even if you are deemed more at fault than any other party, you can still collect damages, but keep in mind that you (or at least your car insurance company) will likely also be on the financial hook for the other parties' losses.

    The comparative negligence rule binds Washington 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 Washington

    According to the Washington State Patrol, anyone (driver, bicyclist, pedestrian, or property owner) involved in a car accident in the state of Washington must complete a Motor Vehicle Collision Report if the crash resulted in:

    • damage of $1,000 or more to any one vehicle or other unit of property, and/or
    • injury to any person.

    Note that if a law enforcement officer (from the Washington State Patrol, for example) comes to the scene and indicates that he or she will be preparing a police report, you don't need to complete your own report. (These rules can be found at Revised Code of Washington section 46.52.030.)

    Washington Car Insurance Requirements

    In almost every Washington car accident scenario, insurance coverage is sure to play a key role, so it's important to understand the state's liability auto insurance requirements and other coverage rules that could affect your car accident claim. Get the details on Washington's car insurance rules.

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