Following a motor vehicle accident, a wide range of challenges and tasks can consume your time and energy. You may have injuries to recover from, new bills to pay, and shifts to make up at work. For many accident victims, hiring a lawyer falls low on the list of immediate priorities.
Still, time matters when it comes to your legal rights. The sooner you take legal action seeking compensation for your car accident injuries, the better your overall odds of recovering the money you need and deserve. As time passes, your odds may decrease, but by how much? What is the maximum timeframe for taking legal action after a car accident injury? What is a realistic timeframe to shoot for? Let’s take a look at the answers to those questions.
The Pennsylvania Statute of Limitations
We start with the basics, which is the legal time limit for taking legal action for compensation after suffering a personal injury. Lawyers refer to this time limit as the statute of limitations. It marks the longest period of time you can wait to make a legal claim before your rights expire and you lose your ability to seek compensation from the party who harmed you.
In Pennsylvania, the general statute of limitations for personal injury claims is two years from the date of your injury. However, multiple exceptions to the statute of limitations also exist that can shorten or lengthen this time period. What might seem like a straightforward concept in theory – you have two years to take action – can turn into a complicated analysis that considers how old you were when you got injured, the type of injury you suffered, and what you knew or reasonably should have known about your injury when it happened.
Navigating these complications usually takes the skill of an experienced personal injury lawyer. Do not just assume that you have two years. That might not be so. Aspects of your claim could shrink that time limit to a matter of months. Or, they could expand your time limit for many years.
Also, remember that a statute of limitations represents the outside time limit for filing a claim for money damages against an at-fault party in a car accident. Just because you have two years does not mean you should wait one year and eleven months to call a lawyer. Far from it.
The rest of this blog post discusses the reasons why you should always move as quickly as possible to secure and protect your legal rights to compensation, and the aspects of a car accident claim that can consume far more time than you might imagine.
Injuries Take Time
Consider what would happen if you were to suffer a severe injury in a car accident, as is the case for many of our clients. You would likely take an ambulance ride from the accident scene to the hospital. At a minimum, you would probably stay in the emergency room for at least 12 hours, but odds are doctors would admit you to the hospital for a longer stay lasting several days at a minimum.
Once you got out of the hospital, you might very well have significant physical challenges to face. You might need physical or occupational therapy. You might need to adapt your life routine to your injury for a substantial period of time, if not permanently. You might struggle to return to school or work.
Which is to say, getting badly hurt in a car accident takes a huge bite out of your time. Months can pass seemingly in the blink of an eye before you even have the emotional and mental bandwidth to think about your legal rights. For many accident victims, this time lapse leads to financial disaster. Bills pile up from medical treatments and because they have missed time at work. By the time they focus on the financial hole an injury has landed them in, it can feel impossible to dig their way out.
We say this because we urge anyone reading this article to call a lawyer as soon as they can after a car accident injury to themselves or a loved one. Do not try to clear the hurdle of healing from an accident injury first, because that can take far longer than you ever dreamt.
Investigations Take Time
Calling a lawyer does not stop the clock from running on the statute of limitations for your car accident injury claim. It’s the first step towards stopping the clock, but the clock only actually stops when your lawyer takes concrete legal action on your behalf, usually by filing a lawsuit seeking damages for your injuries.
Before filing a lawsuit, an attorney typically wants to investigate your accident and your injuries.
An investigation serves two general purposes:
- To figure out who took unreasonably dangerous actions that caused your injuries, because those individuals or entities may have a legal liability to you for money damages; and
- To calculate the full scope of the harm you suffered, to ensure that any legal action your lawyer takes for you seeks enough compensation to cover your expenses, losses, and difficulties.
Investigations like that take time. Lawyers must often track down evidence and witnesses, consult with experts, and research legal principles, to get to the point of feeling reasonably confident in moving forward with a claim on your behalf.
Negotiations Take Time
Sometimes, the mere prospect of a legal claim can bring at-fault parties and their defense lawyers and insurance representatives to the negotiating table. Your attorney may want to take advantage of that opportunity to explore a negotiated settlement of your claim without having to take the step of filing a lawsuit.
Negotiation of a payment to you for your injuries and losses, however, can draw out over weeks or more, depending on a variety of factors, including the complexity of your potential claim, the number of parties involved, and the amount of money at stake. By hiring an attorney as early as possible, you give yourself the option of pursuing this sort of negotiation, and to give it enough time to play out before you and your lawyer need to decide whether to go forward with filing a lawsuit.
What If You Do Not Realize You Suffered Severe Injuries Immediately After Your Accident?
Some car accident injuries hide from their victims by developing slowly and silently, only showing symptoms months, or even years, after the accident. Under Pennsylvania law, victims of these sorts of injuries may have legal rights to seek compensation through legal action even if they only discover their injuries after two years have passed. However, it takes the skill of an experienced car accident injury attorney to put those rights to work.
Here's what we mean. Imagine a car accident triggers a slow-developing, degenerative back injury that only begins to show symptoms three years after an accident. Even though more than two years have passed, Pennsylvania's statute of limitations may not necessarily prevent the injured person from taking legal action. A legal principle known as the Discovery Rule allows a person who could not reasonably have discovered an injury when it first happened to take legal action within two years of the date with the injury became reasonably discoverable.
As you might imagine, cases like this usually trigger disputes over whether the injured person could have discovered the injury when it first happened. Those fights often come down to an examination of whether the person sought medical care. That is why we urge anyone who gets into a car accident to always seek medical attention immediately afterward.
Even if the doctor does not find anything wrong with you, the fact that you sought medical treatment may well protect you if a hidden injury suddenly begins to show symptoms more than two years after the accident and you want to take legal action for compensation.
The Danger of Discovering an Injury After a Settlement
The Discovery Rule cannot protect you, however, if you accept a settlement of a car accident injury claim and only later discover that you suffered additional injuries for which the settlement did not compensate you. A settlement is an agreement between you and the party with legal liability to you in which you agree to release that party from liability in exchange for a payment.
A settlement ends your legal claim for good, and it is almost always a one-shot deal. There is no reopening or going back on a settlement after money changes hands. Which means that before agreeing to any settlement, you had better be sure that you understand the full scope of your injuries and their potential financial impact on you, and that the settlement pays you the most money you can reasonably hope to recover under Pennsylvania law for those injuries.
Sometimes, insurance companies will try to offer a quick settlement to a car accident victim. The amount offered virtually always falls far short of what the victim has a right to recover. The insurance company dangles the settlement in hopes that the victim will jump at it before thinking through the legal implications.
Do not fall for that tactic. The most reliable way to avoid ending up with a settlement far lower than the amount of money you need for your injury is to hire an attorney to represent you as soon as possible after a car accident. An attorney has the experience and know-how to calculate all damages due to you, and to negotiate a fair settlement of your claim that protects you against uncertain future financial needs.
Do Not Waste Time Worrying About the Cost of an Attorney
Some people lose valuable time after an accident because they fear that talking to an attorney will cost them a fortune. They put off making an appointment for a consultation thinking it will end with an attorney handing them a bill they cannot pay, or that they could never afford to carry the cost of an attorney working for them over months or years.
Let us put that worry to rest right here, right now. A fear of not being able to afford legal help should never stop you from contacting a lawyer about your accident injury. Virtually all accident injury attorneys offer a free consultation to discuss your case. Virtually all of them also represent clients on contingency, which means the clients pay nothing upfront, and the lawyers work for a percentage of any money their work recovers for the clients.
In other words, personal injury lawyers cost nothing upfront, and only get paid if you do. So, do not waste another moment worrying that you cannot afford a top-notch attorney to represent your interests after an accident. An experienced personal injury attorney who agrees to take your case will usually get to work for you right away, without you having spent a penny.
Get Started on Your Accident Injury Claim Today
If you’ve read this far, you probably now have an idea of why it is so important to speak with an attorney as soon as possible after any accident. Every aspect of life after suffering a severe injury, and many aspects of the process attorneys follow to build a case to get you paid, can burn significant, valuable time. Two years might seem like a good long while, but in the legal world, it goes by in the blink of an eye.
Of course, not everyone can act as quickly as they might like. So, no matter when your injury happened, contact a knowledgeable lawyer today to learn about your legal rights. As we said, lawyers offer free case evaluations, so you literally have nothing to lose in contacting an experienced personal injury today to talk about how you got hurt and whether you have a claim. What the attorney tells you about your rights may surprise you, even if years have passed since your accident.
The Levin Firm
1500 John F. Kennedy Blvd,
Two Penn Center, Suite 620
Philadelphia, PA 19102