Washington Personal Injury Laws & Liability Rules

Learn the basics about some of the laws that will govern your Washington personal injury insurance claim or lawsuit.

Updated by , Attorney

You live in Washington state and you have a personal injury (PI) claim. Maybe you were hit by a careless driver, hurt in a fall on someone else's property, or injured by a dangerous product. If you're like most people, you don't know much about the Washington laws that will impact your claim.

We'll walk you through some of the basics, including deadlines for filing PI lawsuits in Washington, what happens when you're partly to blame for an accident, Washington's auto insurance system, and more.

Washington's Statutes of Limitations for Personal Injury Lawsuits

Like every state, Washington has deadlines, called "statutes of limitations," for filing personal injury lawsuits in court.

General Rule: Three Years From the Date of Injury

Washington's main PI statute of limitations is found in Wash. Rev. Code § 4.16.080(2) (2023). You must file your personal injury lawsuit in Washington court within three years after the date your claim "accrues." Most often, a PI claim accrues on the date you're injured, provided that you're aware of the injury when it happens.

As a general rule, then, Washington law gives you three years from the date you're injured to sue. If you don't file suit before the deadline expires, then barring an exception to the rule (like those discussed below, among others), your right to sue for your injuries is forever lost.

Intentional Torts: Two Years From the Date of Injury

The lawsuit deadline for certain intentional torts—purposeful misconduct that causes you an injury—is two years from the date your claim accrues. (Wash. Rev. Code § 4.16.100(1) (2023).) This limitation period includes lawsuits for:

Medical Malpractice: Special Rules

You must file a medical malpractice lawsuit by the later of:

  • three years from the date of the malpractice, or
  • one year from the date you discovered or reasonably should have discovered that an injury was caused by malpractice.

Regardless of when (or if) you discover the malpractice, you can't file a lawsuit later than eight years after the date the malpractice happened. There are a couple of important exceptions to this eight-year rule, for:

  • fraudulent concealment, and
  • foreign objects.

Fraudulent Concealment

When a health care provider fraudulently or intentionally conceals the malpractice from you, you have one year from the date you actually discover the fraud or intentional concealment to sue.

Foreign Objects

If a foreign object "not intended to have a therapeutic or diagnostic purpose or effect" is left inside your body, you have one year from the date you actually discover the foreign object to file suit.

(See Wash. Rev. Code § 4.16.350 (2023).)

Defendant Absent From the State or In Hiding

When the person who caused your injury (the "defendant") lives outside Washington, lives in Washington but leaves the state, or goes into hiding, the statute of limitations clock doesn't run—as to that defendant—while the defendant is out of the state or in hiding. (Wash. Rev. Code § 4.16.180 (2023).)

Injured Person Is Legally Disabled

Under Wash. Rev. Code § 4.16.190 (2023), the statute of limitations is "tolled" (temporarily paused) if, when the right to sue arose, the injured person suffered from a legal disability. The statute remains tolled until the disability ends. For the purpose of this rule, a person is legally disabled when they're:

  • under 18 years old,
  • "incompetent or disabled to such a degree that [they] cannot understand the nature of the proceedings," or
  • imprisoned prior to sentencing.

Suing Washington State or a Local Government

Filing a lawsuit against the government—state or local—isn't the same as suing a private individual or business. While the same statutes of limitations (including those discussed above) apply to lawsuits against the government, there are additional steps you must take before you can sue Washington or a local government.

Lawsuit Against Washington State

Before you can sue the state of Washington, you first must file your claim with the Washington Department of Enterprise Services (DES). (Wash. Rev. Code § 4.92.100(1) (2023).) To file your claim, complete and submit the claim form that's available on the DES website. If you prefer, you can file your claim online.

After you submit your claim, you must wait at least 60 days before you file a lawsuit in court. (Wash. Rev. Code § 4.92.110 (2023).) If you try to file suit before the 60 days are up, the court will dismiss your case. The statute of limitations is tolled during this 60-day waiting period.

Lawsuit Against a Local Washington Government

As with suits against Washington, before you can sue a local government (as defined in Wash. Rev. Code § 4.96.010(2) (2023)), you first have to file your claim with the governing body of the local government. Each local government can decide whether to use the claim form available through DES, or its own claim form. (Wash. Rev. Code § 4.96.020(2)-(3) (2023).)

For example, the City of Seattle has a webpage where you can find the City's claim form as well as the DES form. Follow the City's instructions to complete and file either form.

You're not allowed to file a lawsuit against a local government until at least 60 days after you file the required claim form. The statute of limitations is tolled during the waiting period. (Wash. Rev. Code § 4.96.020(4) (2023).)

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

In most PI cases, to collect compensation for your injuries (called "damages"), you must prove that the defendant's negligence (carelessness) caused your injuries. Quite often, the defendant will claim that you, too, were negligent and that your negligence should reduce or eliminate the damages you receive.

This defense is called "comparative negligence," and it's available in Washington. Here's how it works.

Washington's Comparative Negligence Rule

Washington has adopted a "pure" comparative negligence rule. (See Wash. Rev. Code § 4.22.005 (2023).) Under this rule, your share of the negligence—expressed as a percentage of the total negligence—simply reduces the amount of damages you can collect. But you can collect some damages as long as you're not 100% to blame.

Example: Washington's Comparative Negligence Rule

You were shopping in the grocery store one day. As you walked down an aisle looking for items on the shelves, you didn't notice a broken floor tile in your path. The broken tile caused you to trip and fall and you broke your ankle. You sued the store for negligence. The store claimed that you were partly to blame because you didn't watch where you were going.

After a trial, the jurors decided that your total damages were $60,000. They assigned 80% of the negligence to the store and the remaining 20% to you. How much of your total damages can you collect?

Because you were 20% to blame for the accident, you can collect 80% of your damages: $60,000 x 80% = $48,000. The store's insurer will pay you that sum. What would be the result had the jury found you, say 99% responsible for what happened? Under Washington's pure comparative fault rule, you could collect 1% of your total damages, or $600.

Washington's Auto Insurance System

Washington, like most states, has adopted a traditional fault-based auto insurance system. If you're injured in a motor vehicle accident, you can bring a claim for damages against the driver whose negligence caused the wreck.

Washington's Financial Responsibility Law

To make sure drivers can pay for damages they cause, Washington law requires "proof of financial responsibility for the future." (Wash. Rev. Code § 46.29.260 (2023).) Stated more directly, if you drive a motor vehicle in Washington, you must be able to show that you're financially able to pay for (at least some of) the damages you cause in an accident.

Washington's minimum financial responsibility requirements are:

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

In insurance-speak, this is sometimes described as "25/50/10 coverage."

Most Drivers Buy Insurance

To comply with the financial responsibility law, most Washington drivers buy an auto liability insurance policy with coverage limits of at least 25/50/10. If you cause a wreck, your liability insurance pays for personal injuries and property damages suffered by others, up to the limits of your policy. Note that your liability insurance doesn't pay for your own injuries or property damages.

Keep in mind that 25/50/10 coverage is the minimum required by Washington law. If you're responsible for an accident that causes losses greater than your policy limits, you'll be on the hook for any damages in excess of your coverage. Speak to your insurance agent to decide on the kinds of auto insurance and coverage limits that are best for you.

How Do I File a Claim After an Accident?

When someone else's negligence causes you a personal injury in Washington, you have a couple of options for getting compensation. You can:

  • bring an insurance claim or file a lawsuit against the responsible party, or
  • file a claim against your own insurance, if you have the coverage.

Insurance Claim or Lawsuit Against the Responsible Party

Under Washington law, you can probably bring an insurance claim or file a lawsuit against a person, business, or even (in some cases) a government entity that you believe negligently caused your personal injury. If you can prove their negligence, you're allowed to collect damages, including your medical bills, lost wages, pain and suffering, emotional distress, and more.

Starting an insurance claim is usually easy. Simply send the responsible party a claim notice letter. Sometimes, if you know the name of the responsible party's insurance company, you can also start your claim using the insurer's online claims page or mobile claims app.

Most personal injury cases settle. Yours likely will, too. What happens if you're not able to settle? Then you'll need to decide whether to file a lawsuit. In even a simple PI case, a lawsuit can be complicated, expensive, and stressful. If you're thinking about going to court, you should consult with an experienced Washington PI lawyer first.

Claim Against Your Own Insurance

There are some drawbacks to bringing an insurance claim or a lawsuit against whoever's responsible for your injury.

First, it'll probably take some time to collect from their insurance. An insurance claim can take months to settle. A lawsuit can take a year or more to finish. Second, lawsuits can be expensive, especially if your case involves expert witnesses or complex, technical issues. Finally, it won't do you any good to go after the responsible party if it turns out that they're uninsured.

If any of these concerns are present, you might consider filing a claim against your own insurance policy, if you have the proper insurance coverage.

Auto Accident Claims

Suppose you're hurt by an uninsured motorist or a hit-and-run driver. If you have uninsured motorist (UM) insurance, you can file a claim with your UM insurer to collect benefits under your policy. Your collision coverage, if you have it, will take care of the costs to repair or replace your auto, up to the limits of your policy. You'll be out of pocket for your collision deductible.

You might have options to help pay your medical bills and cover some of your lost income. Medical payments (MedPay) or personal injury protection (PIP) insurance—though not required by Washington law—will pay at least some of your medical expenses. Benefits typically are limited to a few thousand dollars. Employer-provided health insurance also will pay for your medical bills, subject to any deductible or co-pay.

PIP often covers a small amount of lost income. If you don't have PIP, you might have employer-provided disability insurance, though it's likely to take some time to collect disability benefits.

Other Claims

Your options are probably more limited if you were hurt in, say, a slip-and-fall accident or by a negligent doctor. Health or disability insurance can pay for medical bills and lost income, but chances are there won't be any other insurance to cover out-of-pocket costs or pay for damages like pain and suffering.

Does Washington Limit Personal Injury Damages?

No. While many states have limits, or "caps," on personal injury damages, Washington does not. But punitive damages—intended to punish a wrongdoer for extreme or outrageous misconduct—aren't allowed in Washington.

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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