How Long Do I Have to File a Wrongful Death Case After a Car Accident?

Wrongful Death Case

About 30,000 passenger car occupants die in traffic accidents each year. That is an average of more than 576 deaths each week.

Car occupants who die because another driver was negligent have suffered a wrongful death. The law permits certain family members or the victim’s estate to seek wrongful death compensation.

The time for bringing a wrongful death lawsuit is governed by a strict law known as a statute of limitations. Family members lose the right to recover compensation when they fail to settle a wrongful death claim or to file a wrongful death lawsuit before the deadline expires.

Time Limit to File a Wrongful Death Case After a Car Accident

The time limit imposed by a statute of limitations is called the “limitations period.” Each state sets limitations periods for different kinds of legal claims.

When a negligent driver causes a death in a car accident, there is a limitations period for suing the at-fault driver. There are, however, some circumstances that could reduce or extend the time for filing a wrongful death lawsuit.

Time Limits to File Wrongful Death Cases Against the Government After a Car Accident

When the driver responsible for a death was working for a county government — such as a county tax assessor or a public works employee who is on duty while driving — the limitations period is generally only one year.

Apart from the statute of limitations, the law requires the person making a wrongful death claim to give notice of that claim to the government. The notice must be filed within one year if the death was caused by a state or county employee. A notice must be filed within six months if the death was caused by a municipal employee.

The contents of the notice are defined by law and are strictly enforced. Family members should seek prompt legal advice after a car accident victim dies to assure that their rights are protected.

Tolling the Time Limit for Filing a Wrongful Death Case After a Car Accident

Certain circumstances toll the limitations period for filing a wrongful death lawsuit. When the limitations period is tolled, it pauses — the clock stops running — until the circumstances that cause the tolling no longer exist.

The limitations period for a wrongful death lawsuit is tolled if the death “arises out of the facts and circumstances relating to the commission of” a crime. In other words, if a criminal act caused or contributed to the death, the limitations period does not immediately start to run.

Common traffic crimes that cause or contribute to a wrongful death include speeding and failing to obey traffic lights or stop signs. Driving while holding a cellphone and driving under the influence of alcohol are other traffic crimes that can have deadly consequences.

When a driver is charged with a crime that causes a death, the limitations period begins to run after the prosecution is resolved, whether by conviction or dismissal. However, the tolling period cannot exceed six years, so a lawsuit must usually be filed within two years after the charge is resolved or within eight years after the death, whichever is shorter.

When the driver commits but is not charged with, a crime that causes a death, the limitations period is tolled for six years. The family of the deceased victim will, therefore, have eight years after the death in which to file a lawsuit.

Determining whether a tolling statute applies can be complicated. A car accident lawyer can help families understand the deadline that applies in their case.