Defenses to a Car Accident Injury Claim

In a lawsuit or insurance claim after a car accident, be prepared for the other driver's insurance company to raise one or more of these defenses.

Updated by , J.D. · University of San Francisco School of Law

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 defenses raised in these kinds of cases.

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.

  • Legal or procedural defenses can prohibit a claim based on an existing law or legal rule, like failure to comply with the statute of limitations, or failure to adequately state a legal claim.
  • Factual defenses include arguments that the injured person is wholly or partially to blame for the crash itself, or that they failed to act reasonably in the days and weeks afterward.

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 the two sides are negotiating a settlement.

Car Accident Defenses: The Statute of Limitations

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, 2022 in Illinois, you have until December 31, 2023 to file a lawsuit over your injuries in the state's court system. (The statute of limitations expires two years from the date of the injury in Illinois.)

Other Procedural Defenses to a Car Accident Lawsuit

Besides compliance with the statute of limitations, the defendant in a car accident lawsuit might try to raise a number of other procedural defenses, including that the car accident plaintiff's complaint (the document that starts the lawsuit and lays out the allegations), on its face, fails to state a valid claim.

This can mean the plaintiff (or the plaintiff's attorney) simply forgot to check a certain box on a pre-printed complaint form. Or it can mean that a drafted complaint failed to adequately spell out the different elements of a fault concept like negligence, which determines liability in most car accident cases.

Car Accident Liability or "Fault" Defenses

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

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 car accident, and you were determined to be 20 percent at fault for the crash, the defendant would only be required to pay out 80 percent of your total damages.

Contributory Negligence

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.

Failure to Mitigate Damages

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 compensation you might receive 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:

  • Get immediate medical attention if you feel even the slightest hint of pain or discomfort after a car accident.
  • 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.

Learn more about how the nature and extent of your injuries affects the value of your case, and why the type of medical treatment you receive matters.

Getting Help After a Car Accident

Especially if your injuries are serious, or the other side is digging in for a fight over a key issue like fault, having a legal professional on your side can make all the difference in a car accident claim. You can use the tools on this page to connect with a car accident lawyer in your area now, and learn more about when it's time to hire a car accident attorney.

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