A question we are often asked is “How long do I have to file a personal injury claim after an auto accident?” A car accident can leave you facing thousands of dollars in medical bills and lost income. You can recover these losses–together with damages for other items such as your pain and suffering–by filing a personal injury lawsuit against the negligent parties responsible for your car accident. But you do not have unlimited time to act.
Like most legal claims, there is a state-imposed deadline known as the statute of limitations on filing a personal injury claim. This is the deadline by which a lawsuit must be filed in court. Any claims brought after the statute of limitations deadline has expired are generally barred, meaning a judge cannot hear the case regardless of its merits.
Personal Injury & Property Damage
Every state has its own rules governing the statute of limitations. Here in Wisconsin, the limitation period for personal injury claims arising from an auto accident is 3 years. This means 3 years from the date when the accident occurred. So if you were involved in an accident on March 1, 2019, you must file any personal injury lawsuit arising from that accident no later than March 1, 2022.
In this context, a personal injury lawsuit is a claim seeking monetary damages, such as medical bills, lost wages, loss of future earning potential, and non-economic losses like pain and suffering. It does not apply to strictly property damage, such as the costs of repairing your vehicle or the loss of any items inside the car. Of course, you can seek such damages as well, and the statute of limitations for such claims is also 3 years from the date of the accident.
When a person dies in a car accident, the personal representative of their estate or certain immediate family members may file a special type of personal injury claim known as a wrongful death lawsuit. If successful, a negligent party can be required to pay damages to compensate the estate or family for their medical expenses related to death, funeral and burial costs, and even the loss of the family member’s companionship and financial support.
The Wisconsin statute of limitations for wrongful death is just 2 years, which is 1 year shorter than the limitations period for accidents where the victim survives.
Accidents Involving Minors and Disabled Persons
There is also a special exception under Wisconsin’s statute of limitations for claims involving minors and disabled individuals. If a person is under the age of 18 when they are injured in an auto accident, they have 2 years from the date they turn 18–i.e., their 20th birthday–to file a lawsuit. Similarly, an individual has been judged as legally incompetent or disabled, their time to file a claim is 2 years from when the incompetency or disability no longer exists. However, if the disability is due to an ongoing mental illness, the limitation period cannot exceed 5 years from the date of the original accident.
Personal Injury Claims Against the Government
When a traffic accident is caused by someone acting under the authority of their employer, that employer is normally liable for any damages sustained by the victims. In other words, if you are hit by a delivery truck, you can sue and win damages against the company that owned the vehicle and employed the driver.
But what if the vehicle was owned by the government? In that scenario, there are a number of special rules that you need to follow. The federal and state governments are normally immune from civil lawsuits as they are “sovereign” entities. And a basic rule of sovereignty is that the sovereign cannot be sued without its consent.
Both the federal and Wisconsin legislatures have adopted statutory waivers of immunity for personal injury claims. This means that if your car accident was caused by a negligent driver working for the government, you can file a lawsuit. But you must first comply with certain pre-lawsuit notification requirements, which essentially function as an additional statute of limitations.
For claims against the Wisconsin state government, notice of a potential personal injury claim must be presented to the state Attorney General within 120 days of the accident. This notice gives the Attorney General a chance to investigate your claim and decide whether or not to pay you any damages. If the Attorney General rejects your claim, you then have 3 years to file a lawsuit from the date of that rejection.
One more thing to keep in mind: The statute of limitations only governs the time limit to file a lawsuit in civil court. It does not apply to any claims filed with an insurance company. So if either you or the other driver involved need to pursue an insurance claim, you should not wait 3 years to do so.
Indeed, most insurance policies contain standard language that requires an insured party “promptly” notify the insurer of any car accident. What constitutes “prompt” can vary, but it is generally a good idea to notify an insurer within a few days–or a couple of weeks at most–of an accident. Failure to give prompt notification can give the insurer a legal right to deny any and all coverage arising from the accident.
Also note that while many personal injury claims related to car accidents are resolved through an insurance settlement, the insurer for the negligent driver may try and drag things out. The idea here is to keep the victim from filing a personal injury lawsuit for as long as possible. And if it works, the victim may find they waited too long and their claims are now barred by the statute of limitations.
The best way to avoid such a situation is to contact a qualified Oak Creek, Wisconsin car accident attorney as soon as possible following an accident. Here at the Martin Law Office, S.C., we help accident victims such as yourself fight for the compensation they are entitled to under the law. Call us today to schedule a free case consultation.