What is the Personal Injury Statute of Limitations in Washington

Here's how Washington's statute of limitations works, and why the filing deadline set by this law can make or break your personal injury lawsuit.

By , J.D.

If you've been involved in a slip-and-fall, a car accident, or any other incident where someone else's conduct caused you harm, you may be thinking about filing a personal injury lawsuit in Washington's civil courts. If so, it's crucial to understand and comply with the statute of limitations for this type of case. (For those not fluent in "legalese," a statute of limitations is a law that sets a strictly-enforced time limit on your right to file a lawsuit in court.)

In this article, we'll cover the details of Washington's personal injury statute of limitations, explain why the deadline is so important, and summarize a few instances when the filing period might be extended.

Three Years is the Standard Time Limit for Washington Personal Injury Lawsuits

The Washington personal injury statute of limitations is spelled out at Revised Code of Washington section 4.16.080, and it sets a three-year deadline for the filing of almost all conceivable types of personal injury lawsuits, whether the case is driven by the liability principle of "negligence" (which applies to most accidents) or intentional tort (which applies to civil assault and battery and other purposeful conduct).

So, when another person's careless or intentional act causes you injury, and you want to ask Washington's courts for a civil remedy (damages) for your losses, you have three years to get the initial documentation (the "complaint" and other required paperwork) filed in court, starting from the date of the underlying accident.

What If You Miss the Filing Deadline?

If more than three years have passed since the underlying accident, but you try to file your personal injury lawsuit anyway, the defendant (the person you're trying to sue) will almost certainly file a "motion to dismiss" and point this fact out to the court. And unless a rare exception entitles you to extra time (more details on these exceptions later), the court will summarily dismiss your case. Once that happens, you've lost your right to ask a court to award you damages for your injuries, no matter how significant they might be, and no matter how obvious the defendant's liability.

Washington's personal injury statute of limitations is obviously pivotal if you want to take your injury case to court via a formal lawsuit, but the filing deadline set by this law is also crucial to your position in personal injury settlement negotiations with the defendant and his or her insurance company. If the other side knows that the three-year deadline has passed, you'll have lost all your negotiating leverage, making "I'll see you in court" the very definition of an empty threat.

Exceptions to the Washington Personal Injury Statute of Limitations

Washington has identified a number of different scenarios that might delay the running of the statute of limitations "clock," or pause the clock after it has started to run, effectively extending the filing deadline. Here are some examples of circumstances that are likely to modify the standard timeline:

  • If the injured person, at the time of the underlying accident, is under 18 years of age or is "incompetent or disabled to such a degree that he or she cannot understand the nature of the proceedings," the injured person will be entitled to the full three years to get their personal injury lawsuit filed once reaching the age of 18 or having their competence restored. (Revised Code of Washington section 4.16.190.)
  • If the person who is allegedly responsible for the plaintiff's injuries (the defendant) leaves the state of Washington after the underlying accident or takes steps to conceal him/herself within the state, the period of absence/concealment probably won't be counted as part of the three-year filing period (the "clock" won't run during this time, in other words). (Revised Code of Washington section 4.16.180.)

If you have questions about how the Washington statute of limitations applies to your personal injury case -- especially if the deadline is fast-approaching or has already passed -- it may be time to discuss your situation with an experienced Washington personal injury attorney.

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