The term hit and run refers to an accident in which one driver leaves the scene without stopping to provide the required contact information, or being cleared to leave by authorities. Every driver involved in an accident of any type is required to follow certain procedures, which usually involve stopping to make sure nobody was injured, call for help, and exchange insurance and contact information with the other driver.
From hitting a parked car, then simply leaving the scene, to a drunk driver running from an accident he caused, it is illegal to leave in every state, though the specific laws and consequences may vary. To explore this concept, consider the following hit and run definition.
Definition of Hit and Run
- An accident characterized by one of the parties leaving the scene without following the procedures required by law, giving rise to the phrase “hit (a person, car, or object) and run (from the scene).”
In the U.S., an element of both traffic and criminal laws.
What is a Hit and Run Accident
When the driver of a motor vehicle is in an accident with another vehicle, property, or a pedestrian, he is required to follow certain basic procedures as outlined by their state’s laws before he can legally leave the scene. These procedures vary by jurisdiction, and may even vary by the procedures of the local law enforcement agency, but they all require all drivers involved to stop and, at the very least, exchange insurance and contact information.
In some cities where law enforcement officials are understaffed and overextended, drivers involved in minor traffic accidents are required to stop in a safe place, off the road if possible, and exchange information. If there have been no injuries, and the property damage is not excessive, the police do not respond, but the parties may make what is often referred as a “counter report.” Any time there are injuries, the parties should call 9-1-1 and ask for both police and medical care, and stay where they are until help arrives.
If a driver hits a stationary object, such as a tree, light post, or mailbox, he must stop and make a reasonable attempt to identify and notify the owner of the property. This applies when the object hit is a parked vehicle. Hit and run accidents are taken very seriously, and, while certain incidents may be considered infractions, many are considered serious crimes. Any driver guilty of a hit and run accident can face both civil liability and criminal charges.
John runs through a stop sign in his hometown, crashing into Mary’s truck as she is legally driving through the intersection. Mary’s truck spins out of control and hits a telephone pole. Instead of stopping, John slows down to see that Mary is moving around, and then continues on his way home. Mary had a few seconds to pull out her phone and snap a couple of pictures, which she turns over to police. Not only was Mary’s truck severely damaged, but she did sustain injuries, including a broken ankle and concussion.
The police use the photos to track down where John lives, and arrest him, charging him with hit and run, also referred to as “leaving the scene of an accident” in some states. Because Mary was injured, the severity of the charges is elevated, as are the potential criminal and civil liabilities John will be facing.
Being a Victim of a Hit and Run Accident
Being a victim of a hit and run accident comes with a certain amount of stress, which is made worse by not knowing who caused the accident, or how to contact them for financial compensation for damages. Most people know that, if the driver who caused the accident leaves the scene, he is violating the law. Many do not understand, however, that every driver involved, even if they didn’t cause the accident, is required by law to stop and exchange information, and may be required to stay until authorities arrive if the accident involves injuries, or a high dollar-amount of property damage. This includes damage to either vehicle, or to personal or real property, regardless of ownership.
What to do In a Hit and Run Accident
All vehicle accidents are nerve-wracking, and most are down right scary. Even in the face of such emotions, it is important for every driver to know what to do in a hit and run accident. Taking all the right steps, and gathering the right information, makes the days following the accident much easier. This includes everything from giving the correct information to law enforcement and the insurance company, to interactions with doctors and attorneys, should this become necessary.
The first step is gathering as much information as possible, about both the other vehicle and its driver. All information obtained should be written down for future reference.
- Time, date, and exact location of the accident – This includes the physical location at the address. In other words, was someone making a left-hand turn, did someone run over the center divider, did it occur in a parking lot. A description of exactly how the accident happened is a must.
- Make, model, and license plate of the other vehicle – Gather this information for every vehicle involved in the accident. Write down the color of the car, as well as any obvious defects or features, such as a “Go Raiders” bumper sticker. If a witness is leaving the scene, jotting down this information on his car as well may help find the witness to aid with prosecution or a civil lawsuit later.
- Insurance information for all drivers involved – Every driver is required to have automobile insurance. If the other driver does not have an insurance card to give out, write down all of the information on his insurance certificate, including the phone number of the agent or company. Taking a photo of the front and back of the insurance certificate with a cell phone camera makes this an easy step.
- Name, address, and license number of the other driver – This is easiest to accomplish when the other driver is providing his insurance information. Simply ask to see his driver’s license, and offer to let him see yours as well. Once again, a quick photo with a cell phone makes this quick and easy. Be sure to ask for his current address and phone number, however, as many people fail to update the address on their driver’s licenses.
- Overview of the accident – Write down or record everything that happened leading up to, and during the accident. Doing this right away, after obtaining all of the information above, may help ensure you do not forget important little details. It is good to also write down first impressions of the other driver, as well as things he said at the scene.
- Names and addresses of witnesses – Having the contact information for anyone who actually witnessed the accident is likely to help wrap things up more quickly. Often times witnesses approach who they consider to be the victim in an accident. Take their names and contact information to provide to law enforcement and the insurance company.
- File a police report – When law enforcement officials arrive at the scene of the accident, they will gather all of the information necessary and create a report. This report can be obtained by visiting the local police department, and requesting a copy. If the police do not come to the scene, as is common for minor accidents, or “fender-benders,” in a busy city, the drivers may make a police report by going in person to the law enforcement office.
Modern cell phones make this an easy task. Taking pictures of the cars involved, damages, and witness vehicles is just the beginning. Taking pictures of the scene of the accident, including the points around the actual accident to show how the road goes, or where there are or are not turn lanes – anything important to how the accident occurred, is likely to be well worth the couple of minutes it takes.
Identifying the Responsible Driver
While the majority of drivers remain at the scene until all matters have been attended to, some flee, turning the accident into a hit and run, and making it difficult to identify the responsible party. When this occurs, the driver or other victim remaining at the scene should notify law enforcement officials immediately. Law enforcement can work to identify the party that fled and take actions to locate him.
Identifying a hit and run party often involves talking to eye witnesses, or may require following the driver as he flees. Police do not recommend following a hit and run driver, as this can be a dangerous activity. Chasing someone through the streets puts others at risk, and catching the perpetrator may be quite dangerous. It is best to provide the license plate number to the police and allow them to track the driver down.
Hit and Run Charges
Hit and run charges vary depending on the circumstances of the accident and state laws. Generally speaking, hit and run accidents are very serious, whether the person fleeing the scene caused the accident or not. In order for hit and run charges to apply, most states do not distinguish between accidents that occur on a public road, highway, or private property. For example, if a hit and run accident occurs in a parking law, the person fleeing the scene can still face hit and run charges. Hit and run accidents can leave a person both criminally and civilly liable.
Criminal Liability of a Hit and Run Accident
Criminal liability for hit and run accidents vary by jurisdiction and the severity of the accident. Criminal liability of a hit and run accident may run the gamut from misdemeanor charges to felony charges, depending on the situation. In most states, a felony hit and run is the act of leaving the scene of an accident when a person is injured. Felony hit and run charges can be very severe, with the perpetrator facing up to 15 years in prison and fines up to $20,000, in some states.
Civil Liability for a Hit and Run Accident
Any driver who causes an accident may be sued in civil court for damages. This includes the costs to repair the victim’s vehicle or other damaged property, medical expenses for an injured victim, lost wages, and other damages. The civil liability for a hit and run accident may be more severe, as the court is likely to see the act of leaving the scene as intentionally causing the victim further distress.
This means that, while damages for “pain and suffering” are commonly awarded in cases where the litigant required medical care, the judge may also award damages for “intentional infliction of emotional distress” when the perpetrator fled the scene. This has the potential to greatly increase the amount of monetary damages the defendant/perpetrator would be ordered to pay.
While Bob is changing the channel on his car radio, he blows through a red light, hitting Mark’s small car, spinning it into another car. Bob, who has too many points on his license already, backs up from where his car had come to rest, then takes off down the road, turning the accident into a hit and run. Mark’s car was totaled, and he spent a few days in the hospital being treated for serious injuries.
After he has recovered from his injuries, Mark files a civil lawsuit against Bob, asking the court to award damages for all of his medical bills, the time he was off work recovering, the amount needed to replace his car, and pain and suffering. At trial, the judge learns that Bob had left the scene, leaving Mark and the police to track him down through witness statements.
The court rules in favor of Mark, ordering Bob to pay all of the damages Mark requested, then the judge orders Bob to pay an additional amount for intentional infliction of emotional distress. This is because, while any accident is emotionally stressful, purposefully leaving the scene of the accident was an intentional act designed to cause the victim additional distress.
Factors that Determine Penalties for Hit and Run Accident
Once an individual has been found guilty of having left the scene of an accident, there are a number of factors that determine the specific penalties that are likely to be handed down at sentencing. These include:
- The nature of the accident
- The extend of injuries incurred by any victims
- The extent of damages to any victim’s property
- The extent to which the perpetrator cooperated with law enforcement officials during the investigation
- Any prior convictions for similar crimes
Defenses to a Hit and Run
Much the same as certain circumstances can affect the penalties a hit and run perpetrator may be given, there are a few circumstances which may be considered a valid defense to a hit and run accident. Some defenses to a hit and run may be sufficient to have the case dismissed altogether. Others may serve to reduce the driver’s culpability or liability. Defenses to a hit and run may include:
- Stolen Car – if the car causing the accident was stolen, and the owner was not the driver responsible for the accident, the charges may be dismissed.
- No Damages or Injuries – if there was no damage to the “victim’s” vehicle or property, and there were no injuries sustained in the accident, the parties are not required to stop and exchange information, because there are no damages for which to sue.
- Belief there was no Accident – if a driver leaves the scene of what another driver believes to be an accident, honestly believing there was no harm caused, there was no intent to flee. While the fleeing driver may still be held responsible for any damages he may have caused, it is unlikely there would be criminal charges, or he may receive lesser charges.
- Threat to Life or Safety – If the driver of the other vehicle in an accident is threatening the fleeing driver’s life, he may legally flee to a safe place, but should call the police immediately when out of danger.
Hit and Run Driver Kills Biker in Newport Beach
In October, 2014, Neil Stephany, a drug addict who had been warned by law enforcement twice about the dangers of driving under the influence, struck and killed a cyclist, Shaun Eagleson, as he swerved into the bike lane on the highway. Stephany ran his truck into the guardrail, then kept going, fleeing the scene. Witnesses called emergency services, and Paramedics transported the victim to the hospital, where he died that night.
Stephany had been under the influence of heroin at the time of the accident, and had a lengthy criminal history involving violence and drugs. A short time after the accident, police pulled Stephany over and arrested him, as he was in violation of his parole from prior crimes. The DA charged him with hit and run, and second degree murder in the cyclist’s death.
Although Stephany was clearly guilty of causing Eagleson’s death while driving under the influence, the fact that he fled the scene in this hit and run accident, served to insure he received a stiff sentence. On October 26, 2015, a jury convicted Neil Stephany of second degree murder, for which he may be sentenced to a prison term of 15 years to life at his sentencing hearing on January 15, 2016.
Related Legal Terms and Issues
- Civil Lawsuit – A lawsuit brought about in court when one person claims to have suffered a loss due to the actions of another person.
- Culpability – Blameworthiness, deserving of blame or censure.
- Damages – A monetary award in compensation for a financial loss, loss of or damage to personal or real property, or an injury.
- Felony – A criminal offense punishable by more than one year in jail
- Jurisdiction – The legal authority to hear legal cases and make judgments; the geographical region of authority to enforce justice.
- Lesser Charges – A lesser charge, or included offense, shares some elements of the main charge or greater criminal offense. For example, trespassing is a lesser included offense of burglary, aggravated sexual assault is a lesser included offense of rape, and manslaughter is a lesser included offense of murder.
- Misdemeanor – A criminal offense typically punishable by a year or less in jail
- Monetary Damages – Money ordered by the court to be paid to an individual or entity as compensation for injury or loss caused by the wrongful conduct of another party.
- Trial – A formal presentation of evidence before a judge and jury for the purpose of determining guilt or innocence in a criminal case, or to make a determination in a civil matter.
- Victim – A person who is injured, killed, or otherwise harmed as a result of a criminal act, accident, or other event.