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Can't always blame an accident on the rain…

A lot of us probably think of rain when we think of Washington. And we all know that rain and other adverse weather can cause car wrecks. But it looks like Washington gets a bad rap when it comes to their climate. Seattle gets its share of rain throughout the year, but the city comes in at a pretty dry number 44 among major U.S. Cities. Even Miami, Florida gets more rain than Seattle. So while there are plenty of other vehicle accident causes in Washington, you can't always blame it on the rain.

Even without the over-hyped rainy weather, Washington still has their fair share of auto accidents. From the rugged coastline along the Pacific to the Cascade Mountains, the beautiful scenery can be distracting for drivers. Its common for drivers to get caught with their eyes off the road and that creates a higher risk of car crashes, especially on those long, winding roads. When these unfortunate wrecks happen, there can often be personal injuries. So its good to know what to expect before something happens.

Washington personal injury compensation: The sky's the limit!

First, the bad news. Many states across the United States have what's called “Punitive Damages” as part of their personal injury laws. Punitive damages can be defined as “damages exceeding simple compensation and awarded to punish the defendant.” Courts typically award punitive damages as a form of punishment to drivers who behave recklessly. While most states consider punitive damages in personal injury cases, Washington rarely allocates any type of punitive damages.

Now, the good news! Whether it's an attempt to balance out the lack of punitive damages awards, or some other reason, in Washington, there is no monetary limit to personal injury awards. Washington courts have determined that personal injury damage caps are unconstitutional. This determination means that victims who are injured in an automobile accident can recover damages without financial limitations, but the laws are quite detailed when it comes to what kind of damages can be compensated.

In other news…In Washington, economic and non-economic damages are determined by specific laws:

  • Economic damages are “objectively verifiable monetary losses” like medical expenses, vehicle replacement or repair, and loss of wages.
  • Non-economic damages are “subjective, nonmonetary losses” like mental anguish, pain, and suffering. These non-economic rules even address the injury to reputation, inconvenience, and the destruction of a parent-child relationship, so they are pretty detailed.

Before a victim gets to the stage where compensation is considered, who is at fault and how much at fault they are has to be determined.

Who's to blame?

While Washington typically doesn't award punitive damages, the state does follow a rule of law regarding negligence. Negligence is the failure of someone to exercise an expected degree of care, resulting in personal injury to someone else. That's some pretty vague verbiage that doesn't lend itself to objective interpretation. So how do the courts determine negligence? There are a lot of laws regarding personal injury and a lot of different takes on what they all mean. But two of the most critical factors are Contributory Fault and Elements of a Negligence Claim.

Contributory fault

Most state negligence laws are very similar and based on common law, but they often differ regarding fault. In Washington, contributory fault (how much each party is to blame) decreases in relevance to the degree of damages, but still allows recovery of compensation. Here's an example: If the injured party is awarded total compensation of $100,000, but the court finds that the defendant is only 70% at fault, then the injured party will receive $70,000.

Elements of a negligence claim

To determine who is at fault, and to what degree, in a personal injury case, a plaintiff must prove five things.

  1. Duty – This simply means that the defendant owed the plaintiff a “duty.” Either to act in a certain way that would be expected from a “reasonable” person or to refrain from acting in a certain way that would be expected from an “unreasonable” person.
  2. Breach of Duty – The defendant acted, or failed to act, in a manner that resulted in their failure to fulfill their duty to the plaintiff.
  3. Cause in Fact – The defendant's breach of duty caused personal injury to the plaintiff, either completely or partially.
  4. Proximate Cause – The defendant's actions or inactions occurred in spite of their knowledge of the risks of their behavior. (They should have known better!)
  5. Damages – The plaintiff suffered personal injury, personal property injury, or other losses as aresult of the defendant's negligence.

The fine print, (aka… hurry while supplies last!)

While there's no limit on how much financial compensation is awarded for personal injury in Washington, there is a limit on how much time is available. Like most states, Washington personal injury laws include a Statute of Limitations. This statue dictates that an injured party has up to three years to file a claim for personal injury or personal property injury. ( RCW § 4.16.080)

While three years may seem like a long time, a personal injury lawyer has a lot of research to do and needs plenty of time to create a strategy for a successful case. (You did remember to get a good attorney, didn't you?) Not to mention the immediate financial losses and physical and mental pain and suffering. Do you really want to wait three years to get your life back on track?

Other, very detailed, laws regarding personal injury in Washington should convince most plaintiffs to contact a good personal injury lawyer, at least to act as an interpreter!

  • If a personal injury case includes taking action against a government entity, the injured party still has three years to file, but they must wait 60 days after filing to start proceedings. (RCW § 4.96.020)
  • Non-economic damages are limited to an amount equal to the average annual wage of the injured party multiplied by their life expectancy, but not less than 15 years. (RCW § 4.56.250)
  • A limit of $5,000 can be recovered from a minor's parents for willful or malicious acts (RCW § 4.24.190)
  • In some cases, the compensation awarded to victims of personal injury may not be awarded all at once.
  • Defendants may be able to make periodic payments. (RCW § 4.56.260)

So there you have it, the “ins and outs” of personal injury law in Washington. Hopefully, you will never be a victim of personal injury in a car accident or a plaintiff in a personal injury case. But if you do find yourself involved in one of these cases, at least you have an idea of what to expect. If you don't remember anything else, remember that your shot at compensation is truly a “limited time offer.”

You'll also have a heads-up on some of the more vague, “subjective” statutes in Washington regarding personal injury. So enjoy the scenery, drive carefully, and remember that an experienced personal injury attorney can help interpret all those rules and get you the compensation you deserve.

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