On either side of a car accident injury case, whether you're the one bringing a claim, or you find yourself accused of causing the accident, it's a good idea to familiarize yourself with some of the common defenses available in these kinds of cases. Note that even when no personal injury lawsuit is filed and the case is handled through the car insurance claim process, the following concepts still come into play when negotiating a settlement.
Common defenses generally fall into one of two categories: legal defenses and factual defenses. Legal defenses are those that prohibit a claim based on an existing law or legal rule. The most common legal defense to a car accident injury case relates to the statute of limitations lawsuit-filing deadline. Factual defenses depend on the specifics of the underlying accident, and can include contributory or comparative negligence, and failure to mitigate damages. Let's take a closer look.
A statute of limitations is a law that sets a time limit on the right to file a civil lawsuit. The length of the statute of limitations period varies by the type of case and the jurisdiction. There is no "standard" statute of limitations deadline, although periods of two to three years are the most common when you're filing a lawsuit after a car accident.
A statute of limitations defense is a legal defense, meaning that regardless of the facts surrounding the case, if the suit wasn’t filed in a timely manner, it will be time-barred. While there are some exceptions to the statute of limitations deadline—usually when there's a question of when a particular injury was discovered, or when the injured person is a minor or is somehow legally incapacitated—the general rule is that if a case is filed too late, it won’t be heard by the court. For example, if you are injured in a car accident on January 1, 2020 in Michigan, you have until December 31, 2022 to file a case. (The statute of limitations expires three years from the date of the injury in Michigan.)
The most common factual defenses to a car accident injury claim involve fault (unless the accident occurred in a no-fault state). The person being accused of causing the car accident will often seek to limit their liability for damages by showing that the claimant was actually at fault for the crash, either in whole or in part. States typically follow some version of one of two personal injury law rules when it comes to shared fault for an accident: contributory negligence or comparative negligence.
Comparative negligence is a factual defense to liability in a personal injury case. In states that have adopted some version of a comparative negligence rule, each party involved in an accident is assigned a percentage of fault based upon the facts of the case.
In "pure" comparative negligence states, an injured person can bring a lawsuit and recover damages against anyone else who might have caused the accident, regardless of the injured person's own share of fault. In "modified" comparative negligence states, if the injured claimant was 50 percent or more (or more than 50 percent in some states) at fault, he or she is barred from recovering damages from any other at-fault party. In either system, the total amount of the plaintiff’s recoverable damages will be reduced by a percentage that's equal to his or her shared of fault. So if you brought a lawsuit over injuries resulting from a slip and fall, and you were determined to be 20 percent at fault for the accident, the defendant would only be required to pay out 80 percent of your total damages.
Contributory negligence can be a crippling factual defense to a personal injury case. In the handful of states that follow this rule, any party that contributed in any fashion to the incident that caused the injury is barred from getting compensation from other parties.
Finally, in most jurisdictions, an injured party has a duty to mitigate his or her damages. In plain English, if you are injured in a car accident, you have a legal duty not to make your injuries worse. If you do, the amount of your recovery could be reduced.
Car accident plaintiffs have been known to exaggerate injuries, fail to follow doctors' orders, or engage in activities that could (or actually do) worsen their injuries. Be mindful of this potential defense. Follow doctor’s orders if you are injured, especially when it comes to keeping all appointments. Don’t rush your recovery or rehabilitation if you have filed a lawsuit.