Defenses to a Car Accident Injury Claim

Learn about the common defenses employed by defendants in a car accident injury lawsuit or insurance claim.

Following a car accident involving injuries, it’s not uncommon for the plaintiff to file a lawsuit to recoup losses for medical treatment as well as compensation for pain and suffering. Whether you are contemplating filing a  personal injury lawsuit  or find yourself in the unfortunate position of being sued, you will find being familiar with some of the common defenses in personal injury claims very helpful when assessing your situation.

Even when no lawsuit is filed and the case is handled through the insurance injury claim process, the following concepts still come into play when negotiating a settlement.

Common defenses generally fall into two separate categories: legal defenses and factual defenses. Legal defenses are defenses that prohibit a claim based on an existing law or rule. The most common legal defense to a car accident injury case is violation of the statute of limitations. Factual defenses are defenses that are dependent upon the actual specifics of the case, and can include defenses of contributory or comparative negligence and failure to mitigate damages. We'll take a closer look at these defenses in the sections below.

Lawsuit Filing Deadlines: Statute of Limitations

A statute of limitations is a law that limits the time period in which a case can be filed. The actual length of the statute of limitations varies by the type of case and the jurisdiction. There is no “standard” statute of limitations, although periods of two to six years are the most common. (Check the  personal injury statute of limitations  in your state.)

A statute of limitations defense is a matter of law, 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 statutes of limitations based on when a particular injury is discovered, the general rule is that if a case is filed too late, it won’t hold up in court. For example, if you are injured in a car accident on January 1, 2014 in Michigan, you have until December 31, 2016 to file a case. The statute of limitations expires three years from the date of the injury in Michigan. (For the time limits in every state, see our statute of limitations chart.)

Unless there is some rare exception to the statute of limitations, courts will uphold this defense. There is no leeway or margin of error. A suit filed even one day late can be successfully defended with a statute of limitations argument.

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 defense will often seek to limit their liability to pay by showing that the plaintiff was responsible for causing the accident – either completely or in part. Depending on the state in which the accident occurred, there are varying rules on compensating plaintiffs who are, at least in part, responsible for causing the accident. States typically follow one of two rules: Contributory negligence or comparative negligence.

Comparative Negligence

Comparative negligence is a factual defense to a personal injury case. In states that have adopted comparative negligence as a valid defense, each party involved in an incident -- whether a party to the lawsuit or not -- is assigned a percentage of fault based upon the facts of the case. Once the percentage of fault is assigned, local law will usually dictate what percentage of any verdict may be recovered, and from whom.

In many states a plaintiff found to be 50% responsible or more is barred from any recovery. Along the same lines, many states reduce the total amount of a verdict by the plaintiff’s percentage of fault. So if you brought suit for a slip and fall and were determined to be 20% at fault, the defendant would only be required to pay out 80% of any verdict.

The determination of fault is integral to a comparative negligence defense, so the more support for your version of the facts you can put together, the better your odds of either beating or successfully employing this defense will be. Many states allow defendants to point the finger at a non-party, which can deflect liability as well.

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 causing injury is barred from getting compensation from other parties.

Check the  state-by-state comparative and contributory fault rules in this chart.

Failure to Mitigate Damages

Finally, in most jurisdictions, an injured party has a duty to mitigate their damages. In plain English, if you are injured in a car accident you have a duty not to make your injury worse. If you do, the amount of your recovery could be reduced.

Often car accident plaintiffs are caught exaggerating injuries, failing to follow doctors’ orders, or engaging in activity that could -- or actually does -- worsen an injury. Be mindful of this potential defense. Follow doctor’s orders if you are injured. Don’t rush your recovery or rehabilitation if you have filed a lawsuit. If you don’t do everything in your power to ensure you don’t make your injuries worse, you may find yourself out of luck when the jury starts putting a dollar amount on the case.

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