Washington Personal Injury Laws and Statutes of Limitations

Learn the basics about some of the laws that will govern your Washington personal injury insurance claim or lawsuit.

By , Attorney ● University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Law
Updated 4/01/2024

You were hurt in Washington by someone else's wrongdoing, and you're considering a personal injury (PI) claim. Maybe a careless driver hit you, you fell and were injured on someone else's property, or you got hurt by a dangerous product. If you're like most people, you don't know much about Washington's personal injury laws. We'll help you get a handle on the basics.

We begin with Washington's deadlines for filing PI lawsuits. From there, we'll cover the rules that apply to claims against the government, explain what happens when you're partly to blame for your injuries, walk you through how a Washington personal injury lawsuit gets filed, and much more.

Washington's Statutes of Limitations for Personal Injury Lawsuits

A "statute of limitations" is a law that limits your time to file a lawsuit in court. Washington has several of them that apply to personal injury claims. Here's a quick overview.

Washington's General Rule: Three Years to File a Personal Injury Case

The statute of limitations for many Washington PI lawsuits is Wash. Rev. Code § 4.16.080(2) (2024). It gives you three years, usually beginning on the date you were injured, to file your case in court. Miss the deadline and, barring an exception to the rule (including those discussed below), you lose the right to sue for your injuries, forever. This statute covers a range of personal injury lawsuits, including those involving:

Other Statutes of Limitations for Specific Personal Injury Cases

Washington's three-year general rule doesn't apply to all PI cases. When a more specific statute of limitations is a better fit, that's probably the applicable deadline. Here are some examples.

Intentional injuries. The lawsuit deadline for certain intentional torts—purposeful misconduct that causes you an injury—is two years. The deadline usually begins running on the date you were hurt. (Wash. Rev. Code § 4.16.100(1) (2024).) This limitation period applies to lawsuits for:

Medical malpractice. Most often, you know right away when you've been injured. That's why typically, the statute of limitations runs from the date an injury occurs. But what if you don't immediately discover an injury when it happens? Washington's medical malpractice statute of limitations accounts for this possibility by incorporating a special provision, called the "discovery rule."

Under Wash. Rev. Code § 4.16.350(3) (2024), you must file a medical malpractice lawsuit by the later of:

  • three years from the date of the malpractice, or
  • one year from the date you discovered or reasonably should have discovered an injury that was caused by malpractice.

(Learn more about Washington's medical malpractice statute of limitations.)

Dangerous products. When you're injured by a dangerous or defective product, you have three years to sue the product seller. (Wash. Rev. Code § 7.72.060(3) (2024).) Here, too, Washington's discovery rule might give you more time to file your case in court. The limitation clock starts running on the earlier of the date:

  • you actually discover your injury and what caused it, or
  • you should have discovered your injury and what caused it, had you been reasonably diligent to look for signs and symptoms.

There's a second deadline, called a "statute of repose," that limits the time you have to discover a product-related injury. The latest you can sue—in most cases—is 12 years from the date the product was first put to use. (Wash. Rev. Code § 7.72.060(2) (2024).)

You'll need the advice of an experienced Washington lawyer to sort out the specifics of the filing deadline.

Can the Filing Deadline Be Extended?

Sometimes, yes, it can. Keep in mind that the examples we discuss here are exceptions to the statute of limitations rules. It's up to you to convince the court that an exception applies in your case. Most often, you'll face strong opposition from the defendant (the party you're suing). That's not a battle you want to fight alone. Once again, consider hiring legal counsel to make your arguments to the court.

Defendant is outside of Washington or goes into hiding. The statute of limitations might not run if the defendant:

  • doesn't live in Washington
  • lives in Washington but leaves the state, or
  • goes into hiding in Washington.

(Wash. Rev. Code § 4.16.180 (2024).)

In Summerrise v. Stephens, 75 Wash. 2d 808, 811 (1969), the Washington Supreme Court ruled that the statute of limitations only gets paused when the absence from Washington or hiding inside the state prevents the plaintiff (the party who filed the case) from serving the defendant with the lawsuit.

The discovery rule. While it doesn't apply in every PI case, the discovery rule (discussed above in connection with medical malpractice and dangerous product suits) might give you more time to file your case. The filing deadline runs from the date you discovered or should have discovered your injury, rather than from the date of the injury itself, when:

  • you didn't discover your injury when it happened, and
  • you couldn't have discovered it in time to file before the statute of limitations ran out, even if you'd been reasonably careful.

Ask your lawyer for specifics.

Injured person is legally disabled. Under Wash. Rev. Code § 4.16.190 (2024), the statute of limitations is tolled (temporarily paused) when a person who's legally disabled suffers an injury. The statute remains tolled until the disability ends. For the purpose of this rule, a person is legally disabled when they're:

  • younger than 18 years old,
  • "incompetent or disabled to such a degree that [they] cannot understand the nature of the proceedings," or
  • imprisoned prior to sentencing.

Suing Washington State or a Washington Local Government

Filing a lawsuit against the government—state or local—isn't the same as suing a private individual or business. Among other things, you must give the government written notice of your injury claim before you can file a lawsuit.

Lawsuit Against Washington State

Before you can sue the State of Washington, you first must file your claim with the Washington Department of Enterprise Services (DES). (Wash. Rev. Code § 4.92.100(1) (2024).) To file your claim, complete and submit the claim form that's available on the DES website. If you prefer, you can file your claim online.

After you submit your claim, you must wait at least 60 days before you file a lawsuit in court. (Wash. Rev. Code § 4.92.110 (2024).)

Lawsuit Against a Washington Local Government

As with suits against Washington, before you can sue a local government (as defined in Wash. Rev. Code § 4.96.010(2) (2024)), you first have to file your claim with the governing body of the local government. Each local government can decide whether to use the claim form available through DES, or its own claim form. (Wash. Rev. Code § 4.96.020(2)-(3) (2024).)

You're not allowed to sue a local government until at least 60 days after you file the required claim form. (Wash. Rev. Code § 4.96.020(4) (2024).)

(Learn more about claims against the government in Washington.)

What Happens If You're Partly to Blame for the Accident?

In most PI cases, to collect damages (compensation for your injuries), you must prove that the defendant's negligence caused your injuries. Quite often, the defendant will claim that you, too, were negligent and that your negligence should reduce or eliminate the damages you receive.

This is a legal defense is called "comparative negligence," and it's available in Washington. Here's how it works.

Washington's Comparative Negligence Rule

Washington has adopted a "pure" comparative negligence rule. (Wash. Rev. Code § 4.22.005 (2024).) Under this rule, your percentage share of the total negligence simply reduces the amount of damages you can collect. But you can collect some damages as long as you weren't 100% to blame for the accident or event that caused your injuries.

Example: Washington's Comparative Negligence Rule

You were shopping in the grocery store one day. As you walked down an aisle looking for items on the shelves, you didn't notice a broken floor tile in your path. The broken tile caused you to trip and fall and you broke your ankle. You sued the store for negligence. The store claimed that you were partly to blame because you didn't watch where you were going.

After a trial, the jurors decided that your total damages were $60,000. They assigned 80% of the negligence to the store and the remaining 20% to you. How much of your total damages can you collect?

Because you were 20% to blame for the accident, you can collect 80% of your damages: $60,000 x 80% = $48,000. The store's insurer will write you a check for that amount. What would be the result had the jury found you 99% responsible for your fall? Under Washington's pure comparative fault rule, you still could collect 1% of your total damages, or $600.

Washington's Auto Insurance System

Washington, like most states, has adopted a traditional fault-based auto insurance system. If you're injured in a motor vehicle accident, you can bring a claim for damages against the negligent driver who caused it.

To make sure drivers can pay for damages they cause, Washington law requires proof of financial responsibility. (Wash. Rev. Code § 46.29.260 (2024).) In other words, if you drive a motor vehicle in Washington, you must be able to show that you're financially able to pay for (at least some of) the damages you cause in an accident.

Washington's minimum financial responsibility requirements are:

  • $25,000 for bodily injury to, or the death of, one person in one accident
  • $50,000 for bodily injuries to, or the deaths of, two or more persons in one accident, and
  • $10,000 for property damage in one accident.

(Learn more about Washington auto insurance laws.)

Does Washington Limit Personal Injury Damages?

No. While many states have limits, or "caps," on personal injury damages, Washington does not. But punitive damages—intended to punish a wrongdoer for extreme or outrageous misconduct—aren't allowed in Washington.

Owner Liability for Dog-Bite Injuries

Washington law makes a dog owner "strictly liable" for injuries their dog causes. What does that mean? In some states, a dog owner is liable only if they knew their dog had dangerous tendencies or characteristics, and they failed to take reasonable steps to protect others from harm. Not so in Washington.

Wash. Rev. Code § 16.08.040(1) (2024) makes an owner legally responsible for injuries their dog causes "regardless of the former viciousness of [the] dog or the owner's knowledge of such viciousness." Nor does it matter where an attack occurs. The owner is on the hook for injuries to a person who's:

  • on public property, or
  • lawfully on private property, including the dog owner's property.

Provocation of a dog by the injured person is a complete defense to liability. (Wash. Rev. Code § 16.08.060 (2024).)

Where and How to File a Personal Injury Case

Unless you're planning to sue in Washington's Small Claims Court (where your damages can't exceed $10,000), you should hire a personal injury lawyer to prepare, file, and handle your PI case. In addition to Washington law, your suit will be governed by court rules that can be difficult to understand. An experienced lawyer knows these rules and how they apply to your case.

Here's a quick overview of the process to start your lawsuit.

Where to File

When it comes to the court where you file you have a couple of options, depending on the amount of damages you're asking the court to award.

Your lawyer must also file the case in the correct venue, or location. Most often, this means filing in the county where the defendant resides or where the accident or incident that caused your injury took place. A corporations is deemed to reside in any county where it does business or has an office to do business.

How to File

Your lawyer will start your PI lawsuit by filing a complaint in court and paying the required filing fee. The contents of the complaint will depend, in part, on the kind of personal injury case you have. In general, though, a complaint should describe:

  • the parties who are involved in the case
  • when, where, and how the accident or incident that caused your injuries happened
  • the injuries and losses you suffered
  • what you claim the defendant did wrong to cause your injuries, and
  • the relief (usually money damages) you're asking the court to order.

Once the complaint is filed, your lawyer will arrange to have a copy of the complaint and a summons served on each defendant. If a defendant isn't served as directed by the court rules, the court can dismiss that defendant from the case.

Get Help With Your Personal Injury Lawsuit

If you have a Washington personal injury claim, the stakes are too high to go it alone. One wrong move on the statute of limitations, for example, and your case will be over before it ever starts. An experienced Washington personal injury lawyer knows the statute of limitations that applies to your lawsuit, how the deadline works, where and how to file your suit, and much more.

Here's how you can find a lawyer near you when you're ready to move forward with your case.

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