What is a Statute of Limitations?

A statute of limitations sets the time in which a legal action must be commenced.  In Washington, the statute of limitations on personal injury claims arising out of negligence is three years.  RCW 4.16.080

With very limited exceptions, if a legal action is not commenced on a negligence personal injury claim within three years of the date of the negligence giving rise to the claim in Washington, the claim will be barred by the statute of limitations and lost. 

How an Action is Commenced

A legal action is commenced and the statute of limitations is tolled in Washington, either by filing a complaint in Court, or by serving a complaint along with a summons to appear in Court on a defendant.  However, whichever method is used, the plaintiff must accomplish the other within 90 days, or the action is deemed not to have commenced and the statute of limitations continues running.  RCW 4.16.170.

The Discovery Rule

Washington recognizes what is referred to as the discovery rule in negligence claims.  Under this rule, the three-year statute of limitations does not accrue or start running until the plaintiff either knows, or exercising reasonable diligence should know, the facts underlying the claim.  This rule will generally not apply in the typical auto crash, slip and fall, or dog bite personal injury case.  In these ordinary personal injury cases, the cause of action accrues and the statute of limitations starts running when the incident giving rise to it happens.  But in professional malpractice claims the claimant may not immediately know or may not reasonably be able to discover that their injury or condition was caused by an act or omission of the health care provider.  In such a case, the claimant has one year from the time the claimant or their representative discovered or reasonably should have discovered that the injury or condition was caused by the health care provider’s act or omission to commence legal action, but the action still must be commenced no later than eight years after that act or omission.  RCW 4.16.350

Tolling of Statute of Limitations

The statute of limitations may be tolled in other situations as well.  The statute of limitation may also tolled while the claimant is a minor or if at the time it would start running the claimant is incompetent or disabled to such a degree they cannot understand the nature of the proceedings.  RCW 4.16.190; RCW 4.16.250.  The tolling of the statute of limitations for a minor does not apply in Washington in actions arising out medical malpractice, where the statute starts running based on the minor’s parent’s or guardian’s knowledge.  RCW 4.16.350(3)