Getting hurt in a motor vehicle accident can throw your life into disarray. Suddenly, you have to contend with pain and discomfort, figure out a way to pay unplanned expenses, and rearrange your day-to-day to do your best to heal.
Amid that sudden adversity, the thought that you should sue for damages may come to your mind. But your immediate challenges may seem more pressing. You can put off talking to a lawyer for a little while, right?
The answer to that question is more complicated than you might imagine. By law, do have some time to claim an injury after an accident. But it can be far less time than you think, and the amount of time that passes can significantly affect the amount of money you might receive as financial compensation for the harm you suffered.
Here’s an explanation of how long after an accident you have to claim an injury and how an experienced personal injury attorney can help you make the most of your legal right to compensation for your injuries and losses.
The Statute of Limitations: Your Window of Opportunity
Let’s start with the basics. As the victim of an accident, you generally have the right to receive money damages from the party or parties at fault. With the help of an attorney, you can usually obtain those damages by demanding payment from the at-fault party’s liability insurance or, if necessary, by filing a lawsuit in court.
In every state, a law or group of laws known as the statute of limitations sets a time limit on when you can take that legal action for damages. This is your window of opportunity to seek financial compensation for the harm you suffered in the accident. Once this window closes, you lose your right to demand payment.
In most cases, the statute of limitations establishes a single time limit for taking legal action after an accident. The amount of time varies from state to state, from as little as a year or less in some places to more than four years in others.
Variations and Exceptions to the Basic Statute of Limitations
But don’t be fooled. Even when a state law sets a specific time limit for claiming injury after an accident, you cannot necessarily trust that that’s how much time you have.
The statute of limitations is riddled with exceptions and variations that can shrink or extend your window of opportunity to seek damages for your injury based on:
- How old you were when the accident injured you;
- Whether the at-fault party is a public or private entity;
- When you discovered your injuries; and
- Whether the at-fault party tried to cover up their involvement.
So, for example, if the internet tells you that the statute of limitations in your state for an accident injury claim is (say) two years, you might not actually have two years to make your claim. Instead, you might have just a few months if you got into an accident with a government-owned vehicle like a school bus. Or, if you were a child when you suffered your injuries, you might have until two years after you turn 18.
In other words, the statute of limitations can get pretty confusing. Most people in your situation need to ask an accident injury lawyer to help them understand how much time they have to claim financial compensation for their injury.
5 Reasons Not to Wait to Claim Injury After an Accident
So far, we’ve learned that the law gives you a fixed amount of time to claim injury after an accident. Still, it can vary based on the circumstances, and most people in your shoes need a lawyer to help them figure it out. Does that mean you’re safe taking the time the law (or a lawyer) tells you that you have?
In a word: no. The statute of limitations is an outside time limit for legal action, not a suggested timeframe. In virtually every case, it pays to get started with pursuing financial compensation far sooner than the statute of limitations deadline. Here are five reasons you should not wait to claim injury after an accident.
Building a Winning Case Takes Time
Successful accident injury claims don’t happen overnight. It takes time and effort for a skilled lawyer to collect evidence, research your rights, and prepare the strongest arguments for why you should recover the maximum amount of money available for your injuries. Giving a lawyer ample time to build your case preserves your options and gives you the best chance of success in your claim.
Evidence Doesn’t Age Well
Lawyers build injury claims on evidence, typically medical records, device data, accident reports, physical objects (like damaged vehicles), accident scene photos, and witness statements. The quality and accessibility of that evidence are at their height in the days after an accident. Things only go downhill from there, as records go missing or get deleted and memories of the accident fade.
In other words, by waiting to claim injury, you risk losing access to important evidence you need to prove your case. The sooner your lawyer can begin collecting evidence, the better your chances of a favorable outcome.
The Freshest Injury Claims Get Taken the Most Seriously
If you treat your injury claim as a priority, there’s a good chance defense lawyers, insurance companies, judges, and juries will, too. That’s just human nature. Conversely, the longer an accident injury claim goes unasserted, the higher the chance it will seem unimportant and unworthy of maximum financial compensation.
Of course, that’s not always the case. A skilled lawyer can secure top-dollar compensation for even a years-old accident claim with the right evidence. But if you’re playing the odds, your strongest bet is to claim your injury as soon as possible if you want to secure full payment for your injuries and losses.
You Need Money Now
An accident-related injury can put you under real financial strain. It saddles you with medical bills and other expenses (on top of the bills you had already), and at the same time, it shrinks your income by keeping you out of work. Claiming injury immediately sets the wheels in motion to get you the money you need to cover your expenses and financial losses in the shortest time possible. There’s no guarantee of a quick outcome but start as soon as possible anyway.
Why Risk Losing Out?
As we said at the outset, the statute of limitations laws are complicated. You might think you have two or three years to pursue your accident injury claim. Still, you can’t be sure in most cases until an experienced attorney has sized up your case and analyzed your options.
Waiting to claim your injury, in other words, means living with the risk that you could lose your right to seek financial compensation to help you pay expenses and rebuild your life. That’s not a risk worth taking.
It’s Okay if You Discovered Your Injury Late
Sometimes, the worst effects of an accident injury do not appear right away. You might think you walked away from an accident, only to learn years later that it caused a once-unnoticeable injury that has worsened into a permanent, painful condition.
The best way to avoid that outcome is to visit a doctor immediately after an accident to give yourself the best possible chance of spotting and treating an injury, even one you don’t feel. But even the most attentive doctor can’t guarantee your future health. Minor injuries can lead to long-term health complications even with the best medical treatment.
If this has happened to you, do not lose hope. Thanks to a legal principle known as the “discovery rule, you may still have time to seek financial compensation.” That rule says that the clock doesn’t start running on your deadline to claim damages for an injury until you discover, or reasonably could have discovered, your injury.
So, if you only just discovered an injury that you think you can trace back to an accident that happened a while ago, reach out to an experienced accident injury lawyer. You may yet have a valuable injury claim to pursue.
What Happens When You Speak With a Lawyer?
Virtually all accident injury lawyers offer free consultations for people who have suffered accident-related injuries. Lawyers know money is tight, so they want to make it as easy and risk-free as possible to find out whether you have a claim. You have nothing to lose and potentially lots to gain in speaking with a lawyer.
It doesn’t cost you anything up-front to hire an accident injury lawyer. Attorneys for accident victims almost always work on contingency, which means that their fee comes out of the money they obtain on your behalf. If they don’t win for you, you don’t pay them a dime.
So, if speaking with an accident injury lawyer is free, and hiring one doesn’t cost you money up-front, what does it get you? There’s no answer to that question because every accident injury case differs. An experienced lawyer knows how to evaluate your potential claim and recommend a course of action that gives you the best possible chance of receiving maximum financial compensation.
In general, however, you can expect an accident injury lawyer to protect and promote your legal rights by:
- Investigating your accident to determine how it happened and who should pay you money damages for the injury you suffered;
- Evaluating your injury to determine the amount of money you have a right to receive under the laws of the state where your accident happened;
- Answering your questions about your legal rights in plain English;
- Advising you about legal, financial, and other decisions that could affect your future and legal rights;
- Collecting the evidence necessary to prove your injury claim in court;
- Submitting your injury claim to the at-fault party, insurance companies, and the courts to start the formal process of getting you the money you need;
- Negotiating with the at-fault party’s representatives, lawyers, and insurance companies to achieve a settlement of your claim if possible;
- Going to court to prove your claim at trial if the other side refuses to make a fair settlement offer;
- Collecting money owed to you under an insurance policy, settlement agreement, court judgment, or jury award.
As we mentioned earlier, these steps often take time to do right. It pays to get a lawyer started working for you as soon as possible.
With enough time, a skilled attorney can often get you money to help you pay for your:
- Medical and other expenses
- Lost wages
- Diminished earning capacity
- Physical pain
- Emotional suffering
- Diminished quality of life
As punishment for an at-fault party’s misconduct, a lawyer may also have a strong case that you should receive extra, punitive (or exemplary) damages.
Don’t Wait to Claim Your Injury After an Accident
If there is one message we want to leave you with, it’s this: When it comes to seeking financial compensation, time is not on your side after you get hurt in an accident. Time works against you at every turn by increasing the financial burden of your injury, making important evidence harder to come by, and diminishing the potential value of your claim. Time can even rob you of your rights altogether.
The easiest, most reliable way to counteract the potential negative impact of the passage of time on your legal rights is to contact an experienced personal injury lawyer as soon as you know you suffered an injury in an accident. That is the most important step in making your injury claim.