What is the statute of limitations?
You have three (3) years to file a personal injury lawsuit in Washington. The time period within which you have to file a lawsuit is called the statute of limitations (SOL).
If you miss the SOL deadline, then you permanently lose the right to file a lawsuit related to your accident or injury.
When does the statute of limitations start for a personal injury lawsuit?
In Washington, the SOL for a personal injury lawsuit starts when your accident or injury happens.
Example #1: You are injured in a car accident in Everett on July 1, 2017. You have to file a lawsuit no later than July 1, 2020. In other words, the SOL ends on July 1, 2020.
Think of the SOL like a clock. After your injury, the clock starts.
What happens after your file your lawsuit?
Once you file your lawsuit (i.e. file your summons and complaint with the Court), the SOL "clock" for your case stops.
Once you file your lawsuit, the clock stops. In legal terms, the filing of a lawsuit "tolls" the statute of limitations clock. At this point, you have an additional 90 days to serve the defendant notice of your lawsuit. This 90 day period is called the "tolling period." If you don't serve the defendant within 90 days, the tolling period ends and the statute of limitations clock re-starts.
Let's see this in practice: You're injured on July 1, 2016, which means the statute of limitations ends June 30, 2019. You file your lawsuit on May 30, 2019 (2 years and 11 months of time have elapsed). The clock stops, and the 90-day "tolling" period begins. You now have until August 30 to serve the defendant before the clock re-starts.
If you don't serve by August 30, the clock re-starts and now have 1 month (30 days) left to serve the defendant. Basically, once you file your lawsuit, you buy yourself an additional 90 days of "free time."
Let's say that you wait until the last possible day to file your lawsuit. Return to the example above. You file your lawsuit on June 30, 2019. You now have until September 30, 2019 (your 90 "free" tolling days) to serve the defendant. But if you don't, you have no more time left on the clock. The defendant will file a motion to dismiss your personal injury lawsuit for violating the statute of limitations time period, and the Court will dismiss your case "with prejudice." This means you can never ever re-file your case.