Washington State Auto Accidents: How Are They Handled?

How are automobile accidents handled in Washington State? To find out, we asked Matt Menzer, a Washington car accident attorney who’s been practicing law and representing plaintiffs for over 20 years in the areas of personal injury, medical malpractice, wrongful death and other areas. In this article, he explains when cases either settle, go through arbitration or go to trial with mandatory alternative dispute resolution (ADR).

Washington Attorney Matt Menzer

In a recent interview, Menzer told us that Washington auto accident lawsuits are primarily resolved in three ways; they either settle, go to arbitration or go to trial with mandatory ADR. He explained:

In my experience, the great majority of cases are settled without ever having to file a lawsuit as a result of negotiation directly between myself or my associate and the insurance company. If a case can’t be settled on that basis, then they are resolved in one of two ways.

If a lawsuit needs to be filed here in Washington and if the damages per individual plaintiff or individual injured party are $50,000 or less, then the case will be placed in the court’s mandatory arbitration program. If the person’s damages are valued at more than $50,000, then the case will be given a a normal case schedule and set for trial a year to a year and a half in the future. If it goes through the mandatory arbitration program, the case will usually be arbitrated within a matter of two to four months. There is also a appeal process in these mandatory arbitration cases. Either party can appeal the arbitrator’s decision and request a jury trial as a method of appeal. However, if the appealing party does not obtain a better result at trial than was received in arbitration, then the other side can be awarded its costs and attorney fees in the case.

If a case falls outside of the arbitration process and is put on the traditional or normal trial calendar, there is usually a requirement for alternative dispute resolution that’s built into the case schedule. Here in Seattle and most of western Washington, the parties will most often choose mediation as the form of alternative dispute resolution. Years ago, parties would grab a settlement judge down at the courthouse to fulfill the alternative dispute resolution requirement, but today mediation is more the rule than the exception.

Washington auto accident law is more open ended, less technical

In general, the laws for auto accident cases in Washington are more open ended, with less technical requirements than some other states, according to Menzer. He explained, “For example, in Hawaii where I used to practice, you need to have medical bills up to a certain amount before you can even file a lawsuit. That’s not the case here. There are no special statutes of limitation. There are also no caps on damages. So we are fortunate here in Washington where auto accident cases are treated like any other tort or personal injury case.”

Beyond the fundamental requirements of being able to prove liability, causation and damages, there really aren’t any other procedural or technical requirements that you must meet before you can file a lawsuit, according to Menzer. He told us:

Although I don’t advise it, injured parties can turn around and file a lawsuit right after the accident occurs regardless of how injured they are, what their medical bills look like or what the other party’s insurance may cover. The better course is to hold off on the filing of the lawsuit until after your injuries are fully known and stabilized, where future damages can be calculated with some certainty and after all efforts to negotiate a fair and favorable settlement have been exhausted.

Whether or not you need a lawyer, Menzer says that there are things you can do to prevail in a Washington auto accident such as taking photos, keeping a diary, filing a police report and attending to medical issues. However, he does think that consulting with an experienced Washington car accident lawyer is always smart – even if it's just to get advice and you decide to handle the matter on your own.