Individuals injured in a car accident can seek compensation for their injuries using two methods. The first method involves filing a claim for the compensation owed against the at-fault party’s auto liability insurance policy. If the insurance provider fails to compensate the claim, the claimant also has the right to file the claim as a personal injury lawsuit.
However, the ability to seek compensation by filing a lawsuit is limited by the statute of limitations on the claim. Allowing the statute of limitations to expire almost always has a disastrous effect on the claim. Here is more information about the statute of limitations on your claim, the impact of letting too much time pass before filing your claim, and how having a car accident attorney assist you with the claim can help protect your right to compensation.
What Is the Statute of Limitations?
A statute of limitations is a state law that governs how long parties involved in a legal dispute have to initiate legal proceedings. This is a deadline placed on filing a lawsuit, and the clock usually begins ticking when the injury occurs.
The amount of time the claimant is allowed to initiate legal proceedings by filing a case depends on a few factors, including:
- The type of lawsuit they’re filing. The time limits on claims arising from a car accident differ from the time limits on charging a person for a crime or collecting a past-due debt.
- The state where they live. There is no standard federal statute of limitations on personal injury claims. Instead, each state’s lawmakers set the time limit for various types of claims in their laws. The time you have to file a personal injury claim after a car accident is generally between 1-4 years, depending on the state. For example, in New York, those filing a personal injury claim after a car accident usually have three years after the date of the accident to file a claim. In comparison, claimants in New Jersey only have two years from the injury to file a claim.
- The claimant’s age and mental capacity. In certain circumstances, the statute of limitations on a claim can be tolled (paused). One of these situations is accidents involving injuries to a minor. Minors cannot enter into legal contracts independently and rely on a parent or legal guardian to pursue legal matters on their behalf. If an injured child’s parents do not seek compensation by filing a personal injury lawsuit on their behalf, the state generally allows them to file the claim on their own once they turn 18. In those cases, the state extends the statute of limitations, providing them the full statute of limitations period to file a claim, beginning as soon as they reach their 18th birthday. Another issue that results in the tolling of the statute of limitations is the claimant’s mental capacity. If the claimant suffers injuries that impair their ability to make decisions on their own, the statute of limitations can be tolled until they regain that ability.
- Who the claim is made against. Car accident claims involving the liability of a local, state, or federal governmental agency typically involve a different filing process and shorter filing deadlines than other types of claims.
It should be noted that the statute of limitations does not require the claim to be resolved within a specific time frame. It merely caps the amount of time the claimant has to file their claim in court. Filing a lawsuit also does not mark the end of the settlement process either, as settlement agreements can be entered at any time as long as the court has yet to reach a decision on the matter.
Why Is there a Statute of Limitations on Personal Injury Claims?
Statutes of limitations are intended to protect both parties involved in a legal dispute from the impacts of the claim that can arise from too much time passing, such as lost evidence, and the ability to locate eyewitnesses and have confidence in their recollection of the events that took place.
By placing a time limit on the ability to file a lawsuit, not only are insurance providers and their insured relieved from being surprised by a claim for an accident that occurred many years before, but the time limit also serves to speed up the insurance company’s review of the claim and the decisions they make about the claim. They know that failing to resolve the claim within a reasonable amount of time can result in the claimant taking legal action against them.
By limiting the amount of time for the claim, there is a better chance that both sides of the dispute will have fresh information that they can use to prove their position.
What Happens If You Miss the Statute of Limitations for Filing a Car Accident Claim?
Allowing the statute of limitations to expire on your claim is one of the most damaging things to happen during the claims process. It will almost always result in losing your right to use the civil court system when seeking compensation for the injury.
However, given that most personal injury claims are resolved by settlement rather than by litigation, is this really a significant loss? Absolutely.
An insurance provider is not looking for reasons to compensate a claim, as that impacts their bottom line. They’re looking for reasons to deny the claim, or at the very least reduce the amount of compensation owed to the claimant resulting from their insured’s liability. Allowing too much time to pass when seeking compensation for the injury is a solid reason for the denial, as the date on which the accident occurred can be reasonably established.
Suppose the insurer denies the claim due to the expired statute of limitations, and the claimant attempts to use their secondary option for receiving compensation through a lawsuit. In that case, the insurer will very likely point out the issue in their motion to dismiss the claim, and the court will generally grant that motion. The opportunity to seek compensation for the claim through a settlement or court award will no longer be available.
How a Personal Injury Attorney Can Protect Your Right to Seek Compensation for Your Injury?
One of the most important services an attorney can provide for a car accident claimant is the management of the claims process to ensure that they maintain their right to seek compensation for the expenses and impacts of their injury.
They must handle several time-consuming aspects of personal injury claims to accomplish this goal, including:
- Valuing the claim. Most attorneys wait until the claimant’s condition stabilizes before determining the claim’s value, as this is the point at which additional medical treatments will likely not impact their recovery, and they’ve had ample time living with the injury to realize how it will impact their quality of life.
- Determining all sources of liability and applicable insurance resources. In any accident resulting in personal injury, the claimant’s attorney will investigate the details of the accident to determine all sources of liability, as other liable parties often result in additional insurance policies that can be accessed to compensate the claim fully. Without a liable party and an insurance resource to provide compensation, it is challenging to obtain compensation. This is one of the more difficult aspects of being injured in a hit-and-run accident in which the identity of the driver who caused the accident is unknown.
- Communicating with the insurance provider about the claim. This communication often begins with a demand for the claim’s value accompanied by documentation and evidence showing the liability of the insured and a justification for the amount of compensation being sought. Insurance providers often have time limits on evaluating claims to protect the claimant from waiting an extremely long time for the insurance company to decide. Generally, insurance companies are required to investigate auto insurance claims within 30 days, though this time limit varies according to state and the insurance company. The severity of the injuries you suffered, or the incurrence of multiple injuries, can result in the insurance provider needing a long time to determine the amount of compensation owed. Typically, insurance providers are supposed to check in at least and let the claimant (or their attorney) know the claim’s status.
What Happens if the Insurance Company Is Taking Too Long to Consider the Claim?
When an insurance company deliberately lingers on overanalyzing the claim and making a decision on compensation, the claim can be filed as a lawsuit. The company can also face additional costs from bad-faith insurance practices.
Insurance companies who sell liability coverage to drivers are obligated to provide the coverage for their insured, including payment of legitimate claims against that policy. Failing to meet this obligation is considered bad faith, and the insurance provider can be forced to pay additional compensation to the claimant over and above the claim’s value.
One of the most common types of bad faith insurance practices involving third-party claims (claims made against a policy by someone other than the policyholder) is insurers deliberately dragging their feet when evaluating a claim and offering a settlement to push the claim past the statute of limitations so that the insurer is no longer legally on the hook for compensating it.
An attorney helps prevent this from happening, as they know how long the insurer has to investigate the claim and the consequences they face for bad faith.
The Case Doesn’t End With a Filed Lawsuit
While protecting your right to use the court process to seek compensation for your injury by filing your claim within the statute of limitations is an important task for your attorney, their work is still ongoing once the lawsuit is filed. Settlement negotiations will likely be a part of that work, as well as gathering evidence and witness testimony from the at-fault party that can be used to prove your claim.
Once a lawsuit is filed, both parties have the opportunity to use several methods to obtain information from witnesses in the case, including the parties involved, any eyewitnesses, and expert witnesses such as medical professionals or accident reconstruction specialists. This part of the process is known as discovery.
There will also be a number of court procedures that your attorney will participate in on your behalf as your trial date approaches, including filing motions, responding to motions that have been filed, participating in pre-trial hearings, and being involved in the selection of a jury.
Additionally, your attorney has the responsibility of providing guidance throughout the process to assist you in making the critical decisions that are yours to make throughout the process, such as helping you to understand how your claim is valued so you can determine if the settlement offer you’ve received would fairly compensate your injuries.
What You Need to Do to Protect Your Right to Seek Compensation?
Hiring an attorney to assist with the personal injury claims process as soon as possible is one of the most important things an individual can do to protect their right to seek compensation and ensure their claim is filed in time.
Even if the attorney has to wait for the claimant’s injuries to stabilize before valuing a claim, several other things can be done to begin preparing the claim to be filed as a demand to the at-fault party’s insurance provider and to be filed as a personal injury lawsuit.
If you’ve been injured in an accident, remember that time is of the essence. Contact an experienced car accident lawyer today for a free case evaluation and to begin working on the process of seeking compensation for the expenses and impacts of your injury.
Mr. Finkelstein is the Managing Partner of Finkelstein & Partners, LLP. He has become a noted consumer activist through his representation of injured individuals against corporate wrongdoers and irresponsible parties.
An accomplished litigator, Mr. Finkelstein has represented Plaintiffs in wrongful death and catastrophic personal injury cases. He has successfully handled dozens of multi-million dollar cases.