A hit and run accident is when a driver crashes into another vehicle, a pedestrian, or onto private property, then leaves without identifying himself, rendering aid, or both. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), “11 out of every 100 traffic accidents are hit and run accidents. Of those, 4.3 percent result in fatalities.”
Most state laws refer to a hit and run incident as “leaving the scene of an accident without first stopping to render aid.” Aid is generally defined as assisting those who may be injured, or calling police and fire rescue when circumstances require their assistance. This includes providing identification and insurance information to the other driver.
In all 50 states, leaving the scene of an accident is a crime. Depending upon the circumstances, the crime is either a misdemeanor or a felony, both punishable by incarceration in a county jail or state prison and a substantial fine. In some cases, the driver can escape incarceration by performing community service.
The problem is the nature of a hit and run accident. Most hit and run drivers aren’t caught. They hit, run, and hide. In many cases, the driver leaves so quickly, the stunned victim barely has time to recognize the make, model, year, or even color of the car. Since the victim doesn’t have more accurate identification, the driver usually gets away.
In this section, we’ll answer the following questions:
- Why do drivers hit and run?
- How do you identify the car, the driver, or the owner?
- What can you do if you’re a victim of a hit and run?
- What legal rights do you have?
- What are the criminal and civil penalties?
- How do insurance companies deal with hit and run accidents?
Why do drivers hit and run?
Simply put, hit and run drivers leave the scene of an accident because they don’t want anyone to catch them. They’re people who place their own selfish interests above others. Hit and run drivers aren’t relegated to one class of people. They come from a cross section of society and include students, soccer moms, clerks, businesspeople, bankers, doctors, lawyers, criminals, and more. Their reasons are varied.
According to the American Bar Association’s Criminal Section, the most common reasons are:
- The driver is intoxicated.
- The driver may not have insurance.
- The driver may not have permission to drive the car, or the care is stolen.
- The driver is unlicensed or driving with a suspended license.
- The driver may have too many tickets and doesn’t want another.
- The driver is driving a company car and doesn’t want his boss to find out.
- The driver may have outstanding warrants for tickets or more serious crimes.
- The driver is in the country illegally.
- The driver is transporting stolen property or drugs.
Identifying the Hit and Run Driver
When it comes to identifying and locating a hit and run driver, you’re usually not alone. Because all 50 states regard a hit and run accident and failing to stop and render aid a criminal offense, the police are supposed to provide assistance.
That sounds great in theory, but the reality is often quite different. Unless the accident results in serious injuries or death, the police usually regard the case as a low priority. The police will assign your case to one of two divisions, either the traffic division or CAPERS (crimes against persons).
If the case is serious enough for the police to act, and you can make a positive identification of the car and the driver, they’ll open a criminal investigation and contact and interview the driver and owner. If the police can verify the driver was the one who left the scene, they’ll arrest him. Unfortunately, that’s a rare occurrence.
In most hit and run accidents, the victim usually can’t identify the driver, the owner, or the car. Although knowing the license plate helps locate the owner, unless you or a witness can positively identify whoever was driving at the time of the accident, the police probably won’t make an arrest.
Under criminal law, to convict a person, the state must prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Anyone could have driven the car. At least, that’s what the defense attorney will say.
Other ways to identify the owner and the driver:
Eyewitness identification is sometimes powerful evidence. If a Good Samaritan stops at the scene, she may write down the license plate number, a description of the car, and of the driver. Providing that information to the police makes it hard for them to give a low priority to the investigation.
Knock on doors. Whether in a business or residential area, it’s important to speak with people to see whether anyone saw the accident. Maybe someone is familiar with the car and the driver. In smaller neighborhoods, someone may know the driver just from a description of the car. They may recognize the driver speeding away from the accident.
Ask business owners to check their video cameras. It’s always possible a camera in a business parking lot taped the car, especially if the driver stopped to make a purchase at or about the time of the accident. A security surveillance camera may have recorded an image of the car and the driver as he left and got in the car at or about the time of the accident. If the storeowner won’t voluntarily give you access to his tapes, your lawyer can later subpoena them as part of a lawsuit.
Be persistent! If you have a license plate number, you can maybe trace the owner of the car through the department of motor vehicles. Although identifying the owner is probably not enough for the police to make an arrest, it will help when you file an insurance claim against him. Unfortunately, motor vehicle departments don’t keep records matching cars to their insurance companies.
Although you can perhaps identify the owner through his license plate, he may not step up and admit to the accident. If he doesn’t admit it, he’s probably not going to give you his insurance information. In that case, you’ll need an attorney. Because attorneys base their legal fees on a percentage of the settlement or court verdict, your damages (medical bills, out-of-pocket expenses, lost wages, and pain and suffering) must be substantial enough to make taking the case worthwhile.
If the attorney feels there’s enough evidence and damages to make the case worthwhile, she can file a lawsuit and subpoena the owner for his deposition. In the deposition (recorded statement) given under oath, the attorney can demand to know the name of the owner’s insurance company and who was driving his car at the time of the accident.
Lying under oath is known as perjury and is a felony in all 50 states. Unless the owner is a hard-core criminal, he’ll give up the driver’s name, possibly himself, and the name of his insurance company if there is one.
Criminal vs. Civil Penalties – Who’s liable?
In a criminal case, the vehicle’s driver is the responsible party. If the driver is not the owner, only the driver is criminally liable, except when the driver and owner were breaking the law at the time of the hit and run accident. In that case, both are criminally liable.
In a criminal case when the driver has no insurance, and he acted without the owner’s criminal involvement, the victim has two ways to seek compensation. In many states, the prosecutor’s office has access to a victims’ compensation fund. The fund is available to victims in cases when the driver-defendant had no insurance or personal funds to compensate the victim.
In addition, if the prosecutor considers offering probation to the driver-defendant, the prosecutor can make compensating the victim a part of the conditions of probation. In this way, the driver legally must pay the victim for all his damages through monthly installments. If he fails to make a monthly installment, his probation officer can revoke his probation, and he’ll have to serve out his full sentence in jail.
If you’re hurt or suffer property damage because of a hit and run accident and the police arrested the driver, make sure you contact the district attorney’s office. Try to speak with the prosecutor assigned to the case. The assistant district attorney will probably contact you anyway, but because the ADAs are so busy there’s always a chance you’ll get lost in the shuffle.
Ask about the victims’ compensation fund and make sure you make clear your objection to the driver-defendant receiving probation, unless that sentence includes compensating you for your damages.
In a civil case, both the driver and the owner are the responsible parties. Even if the owner wasn’t driving when the accident happened, his mere ownership of the car makes him liable for a portion of the damages. If the perpetrator was driving a company car, the company’s owner is also liable.
How much a non-driver owner is liable for depends on such factors as whether he allowed an unlicensed driver to drive his car, whether he knew the driver was intoxicated and still allowed him to drive, or whether he knew the driver had a history of speeding or reckless driving, etc. In those cases, permitting the driver to operate his car is an act of negligence by itself. Some exceptions (car theft, unauthorized use, and similar actions) can insulate the owner from liability.
In civil liability, it’s a driver’s legal duty of care (obligation) to drive safely while looking out for the safety and wellbeing of other drivers. Common law established the legal duty of care. Common law is a combination of statutes and court cases built up over almost 100 years in the United States.
In most hit and run accidents, the driver can take off not only for the reasons set out in the beginning of this section but because his negligent driving caused the accident. Negligent driving can take the form of speeding, running a red light or a traffic signal, driving recklessly, driving while intoxicated, etc.
Negligent driving is a breach (violation) of the driver’s duty of care. When you have sufficient evidence to prove the driver’s negligence was the direct and proximate (legally acceptable) cause of the accident and your resulting damages, the law says the driver, and in most cases, the owner, must compensate you for your losses.
Dealing With Your Insurance Company
If you live in a no-fault insurance state, it’s not as important to locate the hit and run driver. Your insurance company compensates you regardless of who was at fault. If you live in a traditional liability state and carry underinsured or uninsured driver insurance (UIM coverage), you should be covered for damages up to the limit of your policy. If you don’t have UIM coverage, you’re probably going to have a difficult time recovering damages.
Also check your homeowner’s policy. It might have a provision covering extraneous events. If not, you have to keep up the search for the hit and run driver. Remember, there’s a statute of limitations period in each state. It ranges from two to five years. If you don’t find the driver by then and settle your case or file a lawsuit, you’re out of luck.
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