Getting into a vehicle accident can spur some pretty basic human instincts: If we feel we’ve done something wrong, our first impulse could be to flee the scene. But it should come as no surprise that fleeing the scene of a car accident can result in very serious ramifications down the road. We'll look at those consequences in this article.
What is Hit and Run?
Generally speaking, a hit and run is defined as being involved in a car accident (either with a pedestrian, another car, or a fixed object) and then leaving the scene without stopping to identify yourself or render aid to anyone who might need assistance. At least a few states also include in the definition of “hit and run” any collision with an animal.
In most states it doesn’t matter whether you caused the accident or not. The act is committed simply by leaving the scene. If you must leave the scene of an accident to access emergency assistance -- by going to a nearby hilltop to get a cell phone signal, for example -- most states do not consider that to be a hit and run, as long as you return immediately to the accident scene.
Most states do not require that the hit and run occur on a highway or public road. Many states extend hit and run laws to cover parking lot collisions. For example, if you back into an unoccupied car in a parking lot and fail to leave a note with your contact information on the windshield, the laws of many states treat this as a hit and run.
Criminal Penalties for Leaving the Scene of a Car Accident
The criminal penalties imposed for a hit and run vary from state to state. Many states classify the criminal penalties for a hit and run as either felonies or misdemeanors, depending on the circumstances. Felony hit and run is defined by most states as leaving the scene of an accident where there is any type of injury to a person, whether the injured person is a pedestrian or an occupant of a vehicle.
The penalties for felony hit and run can be quite severe. Most states impose fines of between $5,000 and $20,000. And there is very real potential for incarceration as punishment for a felony hit and run. Depending on the nature of the accident and the injuries that resulted, in some states a felony hit and run is punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
Remember, a hit and run might be classified as a misdemeanor instead of a felony. While the term “misdemeanor” sounds relatively minor to some people, in most states misdemeanors are punishable by a significant fine of up to $5,000 and also by up to one year in jail.
Administrative Penalties for Leaving the Scene of a Car Accident
In addition to the criminal penalties for hit and run, almost every state imposes administrative penalties related to your driver’s license. These penalties are often imposed through the individual state’s Department of Motor Vehicles.
Any conviction for hit and run, regardless of whether it’s for a felony or misdemeanor, typically results in an automatic suspension or revocation of your driver’s license for a period of six months or so. In some states the revocation can be as long as three years. Depending on the state in which you live, and the nature and circumstances of the car accident in which you were involved, the penalty for hit and run may include a lifetime revocation of your driver’s license. These administrative penalties are in addition to any criminal punishment that might be imposed for hit and run.
Civil Penalties for Hit and Run
If you have caused the accident, it is possible that another person involved in the crash may sue you in court for the damages they suffered. Such a lawsuit may ask for monetary compensation for medical bills, lost wages, and property damage.
Of course, this kind of lawsuit is likely to happen anyway even if you did not commit a hit and run at the scene of the accident, if you are deemed at fault for the car accident. But if you are liable for hit and run on top of having caused the accident, the damages that a court orders you to pay will almost surely be increased. Many states will impose “treble damages” on you. What this means is that any damages awarded to the plaintiff are automatically tripled, mainly to punish the defendant's bad behavior.
For example, if the jury in a civil suit awards the plaintiff $10,000 in damages, the judge will automatically triple that amount to $30,000 because the hit and run amounts to particularly reckless and egregious conduct. In most instances, treble damages of that nature are not covered by your car insurance policy. In other words, you will have to pay that amount out of your own pocket.
Your Insurance Company
In addition to the other penalties we've already touched on, many insurance companies have a practice of cancelling your automobile insurance policy if you are guilty of a hit and run. Learn more about the role of car insurance in a car accident case.