What Is the Personal Injury Statute of Limitations in Washington?

Learn how Washington's personal injury statutes of limitations work, situations when the limitation period might be extended, and why the filing deadline can make or break your case.

By , J.D. · University of San Francisco School of Law
Updated by Dan Ray, Attorney · University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Law

A "statute of limitations" is a law that puts a deadline on your time to file a lawsuit in court. Its only job is to kill legal claims, and it does that job with ruthless efficiency. Washington has several that apply to personal injury (PI) lawsuits. If you think you have a PI claim, you should understand the statute of limitations basics. We'll tell you what you need to know.

We begin with Washington's general rule for PI cases, a three-year filing deadline. There are other statutes of limitations that apply to specific kinds of personal injury cases. We'll look at a few examples. Occasionally, Washington allows the limitation period to be extended. We review some of the situations when you might have more time to sue. What happens if the statute of limitations runs out before you settle or sue? As we'll explain: Nothing good.

Washington's General Rule: Three Years for Personal Injury Lawsuits

You can find Washington's general rule for personal injury lawsuits at Wash. Rev. Code § 4.16.080(2) (2024). The deadline to file most personal injury suits in court is three years. The clock usually starts running on the date you were injured. This deadline applies to PI cases involving:

Other Statutes of Limitations for Specific Kinds of PI Cases

The three-year deadline isn't a one-size-fits-all rule. Washington has other statutes of limitations that apply to specific kinds of personal injury lawsuits. Here are some examples.

Intentional Torts

Most personal injuries result from negligence, which basically means carelessness. But they can also be caused by intentional wrongdoing. When someone acts intentionally to harm you, the law calls it an "intentional tort." You've got two years, typically from the date you're injured, to sue for these intentional torts:

(Wash. Rev. Code § 4.16.100(1) (2024).)

Dangerous or Defective Products

A lawsuit for injuries caused by a dangerous or defective product is called a "product liability" case. Under Wash. Rev. Code § 7.72.060(3) (2024), the deadline to sue a product seller is three years. But in a product liability case, Washington's "discovery rule" might apply. Under this rule, the limitation clock starts running on the earlier of the date:

  • you actually discover your injury and what caused it, or
  • you should have discovered your injury and what caused it, had you been reasonably diligent to look for signs and symptoms.

The discovery rule can give you more time to file a lawsuit, but there's a catch: Washington puts a limit on the time you have to discover your injury. That limit is called a "statute of repose." If you don't find out you were hurt within 12 years from the date the product was first used by a buyer, the statute of repose presumes that the product was beyond it's "useful life." (Wash. Rev. Code § 7.72.060(2) (2024).)

Once a product has outlived its useful life, it's much harder to prove that the seller should be legally responsible for your injuries. You'll need help from an experienced Washington product liability lawyer.

Medical Malpractice

Special rules apply to medical malpractice cases. Generally speaking, you must file suit within the later of:

  • three years from the date of the malpractice, or
  • one year after you discovered, or if you were being reasonably careful you should have discovered, a malpractice-related injury.

(Wash. Rev. Code § 4.16.350(3) (2024).)

Washington used to have an eight-year statute of repose on the discovery of medical malpractice injuries. The state supreme court declared that law unconstitutional in Bennett v. United States, 539 P.3d 361 (Wash. 2023). The law still can be found in Washington's statutory code, but it won't be enforced.

Can the Lawsuit Filing Deadline Be Extended?

Sometimes, yes. In a few situations, Washington law starts the deadline clock later, or pauses ("tolls") the clock after it starts to run. Keep in mind that these are exceptions to the statute of limitations rules. It's your job to prove to the court that an exception should apply. Most often, you can expect the defendant (the party you're suing) to put up a fight. You should hire legal counsel to make your arguments to the court.

The Discovery Rule

We've discussed the discovery rule (see above) in connection with medical malpractice and product liability actions. It might apply to other PI cases, too. When you don't know right away you've been injured, and you couldn't have discovered an injury even if you'd been reasonably careful to look for it, the discovery rule postpones the running of the statute of limitations. Instead of starting on the date you were hurt, it runs from the date you discovered or should have discovered your injury.

Note, importantly, that the rule doesn't apply in all PI cases. Your lawyer can tell you if it's a good fit based on the facts of your case.

Defendant Is Outside of Washington or Goes Into Hiding

In some situations, the statute of limitations doesn't run when the defendant:

  • lives outside of Washington
  • leaves the state, or
  • goes into hiding within the state.

(Wash. Rev. Code § 4.16.180 (2024).)

The Washington Supreme Court has ruled that this statute only stops the deadline clock when the absence from Washington or hiding within the state prevents the plaintiff (the party suing) from serving the defendant with the lawsuit. (See Summerrise v. Stephens, 75 Wash.2d 808, 811 (1969).)

The Plaintiff Is Legally Disabled

A person who's legally disabled usually can't manage their own legal affairs—for example, file a lawsuit—without help from someone like a parent or legal guardian. When a legally disabled person is injured in Washington, the applicable statute of limitations doesn't begin running until the disability ends. This rule applies to:

  • minors (those younger than 18 years old)
  • a person who's been declared "incompetent"
  • someone who's so severely disabled that they're not able to "understand the nature of the proceedings," and
  • a prisoner on a criminal charge who's awaiting sentencing.

(Wash. Rev. Code § 4.16.190 (2024).)

What If You Miss the Filing Deadline?

When the statute of limitations to file your case has expired, or if the filing deadline is very close, your first call should be to a Washington personal injury lawyer. You want to know whether the limitation period has run out (or is close to running out) and if so, whether an exception might give you more time to file.

If the statute has run and no exception applies, your claim is legally dead. Nothing can bring it back to life, no matter how serious, permanent, or disabling your injuries might be. File a lawsuit and the defendant will ask the court to dismiss it. The court will have no choice but to grant that request. The defendant might also ask the court to sanction (penalize) you for filing a frivolous case.

You'll fare no better if you're trying to negotiate a settlement of your case when the deadline passes. Once the statute of limitations expires, you lose all your negotiating leverage. Absent the threat of a lawsuit, the defendant and its insurer have no reason to take you or your case seriously. You don't have any way to force them to compensate you for your injuries, so they won't pay you anything.

Get Help With Your Statute of Limitations Questions

Statutes of limitations are among the most complex and difficult to apply of all laws. Many lawyers who don't regularly file lawsuits won't give advice about personal injury filing deadlines. The chance of a serious mistake is just too great.

If you have a potential PI case, don't risk going it alone. Contact an experienced personal injury lawyer near you. And don't delay, because time is the enemy of your claim.

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