There's a monster under the bridge.
It's there…day and night, as it has been for more than 150 years…slithering erratically along the muddy bottom of the Columbia River. Without warning it suddenly surfaces to confound and complicate the lives of Northwest drivers. It's…the Washington/Oregon State Line!
Yes, the laws of Washington and Oregon differ in many ways, and those differences significantly affect the personal injury claims of Washington motorists who are involved in accidents in Oregon, and of Oregonians involved in Washington accidents.
In general, a personal injury claim is governed by the laws of the state in which the accident happened. Examples include the statute of limitation (generally three years in Washington and two years in Oregon – but consult your attorney for important – and sometimes sneaky – exceptions!), the determination of fault and the measure of damages.
The rules of venue determine the jurisdiction in which a personal injury lawsuit must be filed. Generally, proper venue is either the county in which the injury occurred, or the county in which a defendant resides. For example, if a Longview resident is injured by the fault of a Vancouver resident in an accident in Portland, the injured party has the choice of filing the lawsuit either in Multnomah County, Oregon, or Clark County, Washington (but not Cowlitz County, because the plaintiff's residence is not a basis for venue).
The rules of procedure and evidence are those of the jurisdiction in which the lawsuit is filed. In the example above, the plaintiff may elect to file in Clark County instead of Multnomah County because of Washington's more favorable, and often more flexible, procedural rules. In that case, the Clark County court would follow Oregon law on liability and damages, while following Washington rules of procedure and evidence.
What about venue in cases arising from accidents on the bridges over the Columbia River? The 1859 law that granted statehood to Oregon included a provision that jurisdiction in cases “upon the Columbia River and the Snake River” shall be concurrent with both Oregon and with the bordering state. In other words, a person injured in an accident on the Columbia River between Washington and Oregon has the option of filing his lawsuit in either state. After the bridges were built, courts extended this rule to accidents on the bridges – but only those parts of the bridges that are actually over the waters of the river!
PIP (Personal Injury Protection coverage) and UIM (Uninsured/Underinsured Motorist coverage) claims against one's own insurance company raise additional issues. In general, the law of the state in which the insurance contract was entered into governs the benefits available under the policy, and the rights and obligations of the parties.
Oregon and Washington have very different rules regarding PIP and UIM claims. Oregon's rules tend to favor the insurance companies, while Washington law, for the most part, better protects the rights of the consumer. This becomes important, for example, when a Washington insured is injured in Oregon. The PIP and UIM coverages of the Washington policy are not reduced by the severe limitations of Oregon insurance law. In our experience, many insurance adjusters do not understand this, and attempt to impose Oregon law to cut down the value of their insureds' claims. It is often necessary for us to take action to enforce our clients' rights in these situations.
It is wise to have the assistance of an experienced attorney to handle the difficult and complex legal issues that arise in cross-border cases. The office of Schauermann, Thayer, Jacobs & Staples is just a mile from the Columbia River, and we know how to deal with that monster that lives under the bridge.