If you've been injured or had your vehicle damaged after any kind of traffic accident in Wisconsin, now is probably a good time to understand your legal options. In this article, we'll discuss a number of state laws that could have a big impact on any car accident claim you decide to make in Wisconsin, and we'll look at the legal obligations of drivers when it comes to reporting a crash.
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 Wisconsin, there are a few different statutes of limitations that could come into play after a vehicle accident.
First, for lawsuits over car accident injuries: If anyone was injured in the accident -- whether a driver, passenger, motorcycle rider, bicyclist, or pedestrian -- and they want to file a lawsuit against the person who caused the accident, Wisconsin Statutes section 893.54 dictates that the case be filed in the state's civil court system within three years of the accident date.
The same statute of limitations applies if the car accident caused someone's death, and their family or a representative wants to bring a wrongful death claim in Wisconsin's courts. The only difference is that for these cases, the three-year "clock" starts running on the day of the accident victim's death, which could be later than the date of the accident itself.
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 Wisconsin car accident attorney.
Suppose you're seriously injured in a Wisconsin 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?
Under Wisconsin Statutes section 895.045, the state follows a modified "comparative negligence" rule. 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 -- as long as your share of liability "was not greater than the negligence of the person against whom recovery is sought." You can't be more than 50 percent at fault, in other words. If you are, you can't receive any compensation in court.
For instance, suppose that the jury determines that your injuries, pain and suffering, and other losses total $10,000. However, the jury also thinks that you were 10 percent responsible for the crash. In that situation, the total amount of your damages, $10,000, is reduced by 10 percent, or $1,000, leaving you with a total award of $9,000.
The comparative negligence rule binds Wisconsin judges and juries (if your car accident case winds its way to trial), 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 obligations related to Wisconsin car accidents are covered in Wisconsin Statutes section 346.70, which states:
Immediate notice of accident. The operator or occupant of a vehicle involved in an accident resulting in injury to or death of any person, any damage to state or other government-owned property, except a state or other government-owned vehicle, to an apparent extent of $200 or more, or total damage to property owned by any one person or to a state or other government-owned vehicle to an apparent extent of $1,000 or more shall immediately by the quickest means of communication give notice of such accident to the police department, the sheriff's department or the traffic department of the county or municipality in which the accident occurred or to a state traffic patrol officer.
Focusing on the injury or property damage caused by the accident, the statute sets a relatively low threshold for reporting, meaning that you have a duty to contact the authorities in all but the most minor of fender benders. It is also important to note that the law places an obligation to report on an operator or occupant, meaning that even passengers could be saddled with a duty to report the accident under the law. Note that the statute also requires reporting "immediately" and "by the quickest means of communication." That probably means calling the law enforcement agency from the scene, via cell phone.
Looking for more information? The Wisconsin Department of Transportation's website offers more details on reporting a crash in Wisconsin.
In almost every Wisconsin 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 Wisconsin's car insurance rules.