Washington Car Accident Laws

Find out how long you have to file a car accident lawsuit, when you must report an accident, what happens when more than one person is to blame for an accident, and more.

By , J.D. · University of San Francisco School of Law
Updated by Dan Ray, Attorney · University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Law

If you're involved in a Washington traffic accident, you'll want to understand how the state's car accident laws might affect you and your personal injury claim. We'll walk you through the basics, including:

  • when and how you're required to report a Washington car accident
  • how Washington's auto insurance system works
  • the deadline for filing a car accident lawsuit in Washington, and
  • what happens when both (or several) drivers are at fault for a Washington car accident.

Reporting a Washington Car Accident

If a police officer responds to the scene and investigates your auto accident, and if the accident meets the reportability criteria described below, then that officer must file a police report. (Wash. Rev. Code § 46.52.30(3) (2023)). When no report is filed by a police officer, you must, within 4 days of the accident, complete a Motor Vehicle Collision Report if the crash caused:

  • damage of $1,000 or more to any vehicle or other property, or
  • injury to, or the death of, any person.

(Wash. Rev. Code § 46.52.30(1) (2023)).

Note that this reporting requirement applies to anyone—driver, bicyclist, pedestrian, or property owner—involved in a Washington car accident. You can order a motor vehicle collision report online for a $10.50 fee.

Washington Is a "Fault-Based" Auto Insurance State

Several states have adopted a no-fault car insurance system. Under no-fault rules, a driver must make an injury claim with their own car insurance company after an accident, regardless of who caused the crash.

Washington Is a Fault-Based State

Washington is not a no-fault state. Instead, Washington has a traditional "fault-based" insurance system. What does this mean?

If you're injured (or your property is damaged) in an auto accident, you're free to bring an insurance claim or file a lawsuit against whoever's legally to blame. There's no requirement that you must first file a claim against your own auto insurance policy.

Washington's Auto Insurance Requirements

Under Washington law, any person who operates a motor vehicle in Washington must meet the state's financial responsibility requirement. (Wash. Rev. Code § 46.30.20(1)(a) (2023)). For most drivers, this will mean buying an auto insurance policy that satisfies the state's minimum liability coverage limits:

  • $25,000 for bodily injury to, or the death of, a person
  • $50,000 for bodily injuries or deaths per accident, and
  • $10,000 for property damage per accident.

(Wash. Rev. Code § 46.29.490 (2023)).

If you're involved in a Washington car wreck while driving a car that's registered in another state, you're required to meet the financial responsibility law of the state where your car is registered. (Wash. Rev. Code § 46.30.20(1)(b) (2023)).

(Learn more about Washington's car insurance rules.)

Washington Car Accident Statute of Limitations

A "statute of limitations" is a law that sets a strict deadline on your right to file a lawsuit in court. Typically, different kinds of cases have different time deadlines. For example, medical malpractice cases might have a different statute of limitations than auto accident cases.

Statutes of limitations often are among the most complex and confusing of all laws. It's easy to make a mistake that can cost you the right to file a lawsuit. If you're unsure about the limitations period for your case, you should contact an experienced Washington attorney.

Washington's Limitations Periods

The statute of limitations for most Washington car accident lawsuits is the same as the general statute of limitations that applies to most Washington personal injury lawsuits. Specifically, an action for "injury to the person or rights of another" must be filed within 3 years. (Wash. Rev. Code § 4.16.80(2) (2023)). This deadline applies to any car accident injury claim brought by a driver, passenger, motorcyclist, bicyclist, electric scooter rider, or pedestrian after a traffic accident.

What if you weren't injured but your property was damaged? A lawsuit for "injuring personal property" is subject to the same 3-year statute of limitations. Finally, that 3-year limitations period also applies if someone is killed in an auto accident and the victim's surviving relatives want to bring a wrongful death lawsuit.

When Does the Statute of Limitations Clock Start Running?

For personal injury and property damage cases, the statute of limitations clock starts running on the date of the crash. But the limitations period on a wrongful death lawsuit starts on the date of the victim's death, which could be later than the date of the accident.

In some special cases, the limitations period might be "tolled"—stopped for some period—meaning you could have more time to file a lawsuit. But these cases are the exception, not the rule. Again, if you have questions, contact an experienced Washington lawyer.

What If You Miss the Washington Statute of Limitations Deadline?

In most cases, if you try to file your car accident lawsuit after the filing deadline has passed, the court will have no choice but to dismiss your case. Once the statute of limitations has run out, you lose your right to sue, forever. That's why it's crucial to understand how the statute of limitations applies to your situation.

What Happens When Both (or Several) Drivers Are at Fault?

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 mostly responsible for the accident, but that you bear part of the blame. What happens next? How does this verdict affect your right to compensation?

Washington Is a Pure Comparative Negligence State

When two or more drivers share the blame for an accident, Washington follows what's called a "pure comparative negligence" system. Under pure comparative negligence rules, you can still recover damages in a car accident lawsuit when you're partly at fault. But your damage award will be reduced by your share of the total negligence.

Even if you're more to blame than any other party, you can still collect damages. Keep in mind, though, that you (or your auto insurance company) will likely be on the financial hook for the other driver's losses.

Pure Comparative Negligence Examples

Suppose you sue another driver for personal injuries resulting from a car accident. The other driver, in response, claims that you're also to blame for the wreck. After a trial, the jury finds that your total damages (for your personal injuries, pain and suffering, and other injury-related out-of-pocket expenses) are $100,000. The jury finds that the other driver's personal injury damages total $50,000.

Example 1: You're 10% at Fault; Other Driver 90% at Fault

The jury finds that the other driver was 90% to blame. But because you were speeding, the jury assigns 10% of the fault to you. You'll have to reduce the total amount of your damages, $100,000, by 10%, or $10,000. You can recover $90,000.

The other driver's total damages of $50,000 must be reduced by 90%, or $45,000. That driver's net recovery will be $5,000.

Example 2: You're 90% at Fault; Other Driver Is 10% at Fault

Now let's flip the percentages. The jury finds you were 90% to blame and assesses just 10% of the fault to the other driver. Not surprisingly, the end result is much less favorable for you.

Your $100,000 total damage award is reduced by 90%, or $90,000. You'll collect just $10,000. The other driver's $50,000 total damage award gets reduced by $5,000—10% of the total negligence. You (or your auto insurer) must pay the other driver $45,000.

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