Washington D.C. Personal Injury Laws and Liability Rules

If you've been injured in a Washington D.C. accident, review these rules before starting your personal injury case.

By , Attorney

If you've been hurt in an accident in Washington, D.C. (D.C. or the District), you might be thinking of filing a personal injury (PI) insurance claim or lawsuit. But like most people, you're not familiar with the laws and rules that probably control your case. Before you file, take a few minutes to learn the basics.

We'll walk you through some of D.C.'s personal injury laws, including its auto insurance system, how long you have to file a lawsuit in court, what happens to your claim if you're partly at fault, and more.

Statutes of Limitations on D.C. Personal Injury Lawsuits

The District has enacted several deadlines, called "statutes of limitations," on the time you have to file a lawsuit in court. We begin with D.C.'s general three-year limitation period. From there, we'll have a look at some special rules and exceptions that apply in particular cases.

General Rule: Three Years From the Date You Were Injured

You have three years from the date your claim "accrues" to file a personal injury lawsuit in court. (D.C. Code § 12-301(a)(8) (2023).) A personal injury claim usually accrues on the date you're hurt. As a general rule, then, D.C. law gives you three years from the date you were injured to file suit.

Intentional Tort Claims: One Year

The filing deadline for several intentional torts—deliberate misconduct that causes injury—is one year from the date of injury. The claims covered by this rule include:

(D.C. Code § 12-301(a)(4) (2023).)

Medical Malpractice Claims: Notice Requirement

Medical malpractice lawsuits are included in the three-year statute of limitations general rule discussed above. But you must provide notice of your intention to sue at least 90 days before filing. (D.C. Code § 16-2802(a) (2023).) The notice must include the information required by D.C. Code § 16-2802(b) (2023).

Providing this notice is not the same thing as filing a lawsuit. You must give notice first and then, after waiting at least 90 days, you can file in court. "A legal action alleging medical malpractice shall not be commenced in the court unless the [notice] requirements of this section have been satisfied." (D.C. Code § 16-2802(c) (2023).)

Claims Against the District: Notice Requirement

Personal injury claims against D.C. are also included in the three-year statute of limitations general rule mentioned above. Here, too, pre-suit notice is required. You must provide the D.C. Mayor with written notice of your claim within six months after you were injured. (D.C. Code § 12-309(a) (2023).)

You can satisfy this notice requirement by providing the Mayor with a copy of a written D.C. Metropolitan Police Department report.

Injured Person Is Legally Disabled

When an injured person is legally disabled, the applicable filing deadline starts to run when the disability is removed. For this purpose, legally disabled persons include:

  • children under the age of 18
  • persons who are mentally incapacitated, and
  • persons who are imprisoned.

(D.C. Code § 12-302(a) (2023).)

Defendant Is Absent From the District

If the party who's responsible for your injuries (the "defendant") is a D.C. resident and leaves the District or goes into hiding, the limitation period doesn't run while the person is gone from D.C. or is in hiding. (D.C. Code § 12-303 (2023).)

Discovery Rule

Generally speaking, the statute of limitations clock starts running on the date you're injured. But what happens if you don't know right away that you're hurt? In that case, D.C.'s "discovery rule" might give you extra time to file.

Under the discovery rule, your time to file a lawsuit doesn't start to run until you discover, or you reasonably should discover, that someone else's wrongdoing hurt you. (See Knight v. Furlow, 553 A.2d 1232, 1236 (D.C. 1989).)

D.C.'s Motor Vehicle Insurance System

The District has adopted what looks like a "choice" no-fault motor vehicle insurance system. As we'll see, though, in operation it's a fault-based system. Let's start by describing the different insurance systems. Then we'll find out about the specifics of D.C.'s auto insurance law.

How Auto Insurance Systems Work

Most states have adopted either a fault-based or a no-fault auto insurance system. A few have opted for a "choice" no-fault system. Here's how they work.

Fault-Based Insurance

Under a fault-based insurance system, a person who's injured in a wreck can bring a claim against the responsible driver's auto liability insurance to collect compensation—what the law calls "damages"—for their injuries. If the claim succeeds, they can collect both economic and noneconomic damages.

No-Fault Insurance

If you're injured in a no-fault state, you first look to your own no-fault insurance, called personal injury protection coverage (PIP), to reimburse you for your economic losses. Typically, PIP pays at least some medical bills, lost income, and other out-of-pocket expenses.

The main drawback to a no-fault system is that PIP doesn't pay for noneconomic damages like pain and suffering or emotional distress. To recover those damages, you have to bring a claim against the responsible driver. But no-fault law limits your ability to bring such a "third-party" claim.

Choice No-Fault Insurance

A few states, called "choice" no-fault states, let drivers choose between fault-based insurance and no-fault insurance. Once you choose, you're stuck with that coverage until your next insurance policy renewal.

D.C.'s Auto Insurance System

Under District law, you must have at least the minimum required auto liability coverage (see below). In addition, your auto insurance company must offer you optional no-fault PIP coverage. (D.C. Code § 31-2404(a)(1) (2023.)) This looks like a choice no-fault system.

Here's why it isn't no-fault insurance. If you've chosen to buy PIP coverage and you're injured in a wreck that was someone else's fault, you have 60 days after the date of the accident to elect to receive no-fault benefits. If you don't make the election, you're deemed to have chosen to bring a claim against the at-fault driver's auto liability insurance. (D.C. Code § 31-2405 (2023.))

If you elect to take no-fault PIP benefits, then you're barred from bringing a claim or a lawsuit against the responsible driver unless you satisfy one or both of these injury severity thresholds:

  • your medical bills exceed your PIP coverage, or
  • your injuries cause substantial, permanent scarring, disfigurement, or a qualifying impairment.

(D.C. Code § 31-2405(b) (2023.))

Because there's no restriction on your right to sue for your injuries—unless you choose, after being injured, to take PIP benefits—D.C. law effectively creates a fault-based auto insurance system.

Minimum Liability Insurance

District law requires auto owners to have auto liability insurance with at least these minimum coverages:

  • $25,000 for bodily injury to, or the death of, one person in an accident
  • $50,000 for bodily injuries to, or the deaths of, two or more people in an accident, and
  • $10,000 for property damage caused in an accident.

(D.C. Code § 31-2406(b-c) (2023.))

Uninsured Motorist Coverage

District law also requires that drivers have uninsured motorist (UM) coverage. Uninsured motorist coverage pays your damages if you're hurt by an uninsured driver. The minimum required UM coverages are:

  • $25,000 for bodily injury to, or the death of, one person in an accident
  • $50,000 for bodily injuries to, or the deaths of, two or more people in an accident, and
  • $5,000 for property damage caused in an accident.

What Happens If You're Partly to Blame for the Accident?

In a typical PI case, to collect damages, you must show that someone else negligently caused your injuries. In many cases, the other party will claim that you, too, were negligent and that your negligence should reduce or eliminate your recovery. The District allows a very harsh version of this defense, called contributory negligence.

How the Contributory Negligence Rule Works

Under the contributory negligence rule, if your own negligence contributes to the accident that caused your injuries, you're barred from collecting any damages for your injuries. Even the tiniest amount of negligence on your part—just 1%—defeats your claim entirely.

In a D.C. personal injury case, you should expect the other party to look for any way to pin some small amount of fault for the accident on you. If they succeed, they owe you nothing. This is one of many reasons why you should hire an experienced D.C. personal injury lawyer to handle your case.

Exception to the Contributory Negligence Rule

When a "vulnerable user" is involved in a motor vehicle collision, the contributory negligence rule doesn't apply. Instead, D.C. law uses a more lenient comparative negligence rule. A vulnerable user can collect at least some damages for their injuries as long as they weren't more than 50% responsible for the accident. (D.C. Code § 50-2204.52(a)(1) (2023.))

A vulnerable user is "an individual using an all-terrain vehicle, bicycle, dirt bike, electric mobility device, motorcycle, motorized bicycle, motor-driven cycle, non-motorized scooter, personal mobility device, skateboard, or other similar device." (D.C. Code § 50-2204.51(13) (2023.))

Here's an example. Say you're riding a bicycle in D.C. A motor vehicle collides with you, causing you serious injuries. After a trial, the jury finds your total damages are $100,000. The jurors decide that the motor vehicle driver was 70% at fault. But they also find that the brakes on your bike weren't working correctly. For that reason, they assess the remaining 30% of the negligence to you. How much of your damages can you collect?

Because you were only 30% to blame, D.C.'s vulnerable user comparative negligence rule lets you collect 70% of your damages: $100,000 x 70% = $70,000. What would the outcome be if the jury found you 51% (or more) negligent? You'd collect zero damages.

Where and How to File a D.C. Personal Injury Lawsuit

Your personal injury case is a kind of civil lawsuit. Where and how you file your case is determined by District law and by court rules called the Superior Court Rules of Civil Procedure. Individual judges have supplemental rules that you'll need to follow, too. The Superior Court also periodically adopts a general order. Here's the version that's effective January 1, 2023. Check to see if a more current version of this general order is available.

Where to File

In D.C., you file your PI case in the Civil Division of the Superior Court. You'll probably want to collect more than $10,000 in damages. The Court has published a useful handbook for self-represented parties. You should also review the Case Management Plan.

How to File

You start your PI lawsuit by filing a complaint with the court. (Sup. Ct. R. Civ. Proc. 3 (2023).) In separately numbered paragraphs, (Sup. Ct. R. Civ. Proc. 10(b) (2023), your complaint should describe:

  • the parties who are involved in the case
  • when, where, and how you were injured
  • your injuries
  • what the other party did wrong to cause your injuries, and
  • the relief (usually money damages) you're asking the court to award you.

Be sure to include the information required by Sup. Ct. R. Civ. Proc.10(a) (2023), as well as any other information required by the rules. In addition to your complaint, you must complete:

  • a summons—an order directing the defendant to appear in court and defend the case, and
  • an information sheet—a form that provides basic information about the case and the parties.

The court clerk will prepare what's known as the "Initial Order." It's an order concerning things like how long you have to deliver the lawsuit to the defendant and how long the defendant has to respond to your complaint.

Once you've filed your complaint, you'll need to "serve" each defendant, meaning formally deliver to them a copy of the summons, complaint, Initial Order, and Information Sheet. (See Sup. Ct. R. Civ. Proc. 4 (2023).) Personal service must be done by someone other than you who's older than 18. You can serve most defendants by certified or registered mail.

Does D.C. Limit Damages in a Personal Injury Case?

In a word: No.

Many states have enacted limits, called "caps," on damages in personal injury cases. Typically, these laws cap the amount of noneconomic damages an injured person can collect. Some states limit damages in all cases, while others target specific claims, like malpractice suits. The District doesn't cap personal injury damages.

What's Next?

If you're looking for legal advice that's tailored to your situation, talk to a personal injury lawyer in your area. You can also learn more about personal injury lawsuits, settlements, alternatives to resolving your case in court, and more:

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