An already unpleasant event, a car accident, is magnified when there is a hit and run. In this article, we'll take a look at what drivers are legally obligated to do after a car accident, and we'll also discuss the potential penalties stemming from a hit and run accident.
Definition of a “Hit and Run Accident”
A hit and run accident occurs when a person involved in a traffic collision leaves the scene without stopping his or her vehicle. But the definition of a hit and run varies from state to state, and since most states' vehicle codes specify a driver's obligations after an accident, any time a driver fails to meet those obligations -- especially the duty to stop and exchange information -- a hit and run accident may be said to have occurred.
A hit and run accident may involve damage to property including other cars or bicycles, or stationary objects such as a telephone pole, a parked car, or a homeowner's property. Obviously, a hit and run accident may also involve injury to a person -- another driver, a vehicle passenger, a bicyclist, or a pedestrian.
Duties and Responsibilities After a Car Accident
As mentioned above, each state sets out a driver's legal obligations after a traffic accident (usually in the state's "Vehicle Code" or "Traffic Laws"). While these rules vary, a few common duties are discussed here. (Learn more about why you should never flee the scene of an accident.)
Stop your Vehicle. As soon as reasonably possible, you must stop your car and pull over at a safe location.
Exchange Information with Other Drivers. There is generally a duty to exchange contact information, driver's license numbers, and car insurance information with other drivers involved in the accident.
Contact Law Enforcement. Especially when an accident involves serious injuries, you may have a legal obligation to contact law enforcement so that they can come to the scene and make a police report.
Provide Assistance to Injured Persons. Many states require drivers of vehicles involved in a car accident to provide assistance to injured persons, or to at least summon emergency services.
In Florida, there is a duty to render reasonable assistance to any person injured in the car accident which may include taking the person to the hospital or other medical treatment center. If there are no police or medical personnel at the scene of the accident, a driver has a duty to report the crash to the police and provide certain information. The penalty for not providing assistance or reporting the crash is not as severe as an actually hit and run. It is a noncriminal traffic infraction.
In Virginia, similar to Florida, there is a duty to provide reasonable assistance. Where there is an injured person, the driver involved in the accident must render reasonable assistance, including transporting the person to medical personnel, when it is apparent the medical treatment is necessary or when the injured person requests it.
Leave a Note. When your vehicle causes damage to another unattended vehicle (such as a parked car), there is a duty to make reasonable efforts to find the owner. If the owner cannot be found, you must leave a note with your contact information and, in certain states, contact the police within a reasonable amount of time. Additionally, some states impose a duty on passengers to ensure that drivers report the accident.
Criminal Penalties for a Hit and Run Accident
In all states, hit and run incidents can lead to criminal charges and penalties ranging from fines and driver's license sanctions to imprisonment.
If there is significant property damage, or if the accident results in injury or death, the penalty will most likely be charged as a felony. When there is only minimal property damage, the offense will probably be considered a misdemeanor.
Hit and Run Accidents and Civil Lawsuits
A person who has been injured in a hit and run accident can file a personal injury lawsuit against the offending driver. In addition to getting compensation for all injuries and losses caused by the crash, the injured person is more likely to receive punitive damages from the hit and run driver.
Unlike compensatory damages which are meant to compensate an injured person, punitive damages are awarded to punish the wrongdoer and to deter similar conduct in the future. Punitive damages are rare and only awarded in a small percentage of cases, but if the facts of the hit and run case show particularly reprehensible conduct on the part of the driver, punitive damages may be awarded.
Seek Legal Advice from a Car Accident Lawyer
State laws vary widely when it comes to car accident settlements and claims, and each claim has limitations and exclusions. In addition, recovery may depend on the particular insurance policies involved as well as judicial decisions in that state. If you get into even a minor car accident, you should contact a car accident lawyer so that you learn your rights.
Updated by: David Goguen, J.D.