Getting into a car accident can spur some pretty primal human instincts: If we feel we've done something wrong, our first impulse could be to flee the scene. But here's what to know:
Generally speaking, a hit and run occurs when you're 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 car 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 leaving a rural cell phone "dead area" to get a 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.
Learn more about the right steps to take after a car accident.
The criminal penalties for a hit and run vary from state to state. A hit and run offense is classified as either a felony or misdemeanor, 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.
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.
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 a hit and run on top of having caused the accident, the damages that a court orders you to pay will almost surely be increased. Some states will impose punitive damages or "treble damages" on a hit-and-run driver in a civil lawsuit.
Punitive damages are awarded in court to the injured person (the plaintiff), but they're not meant to cover the injured person's losses. Instead, they're meant to punish a defendant's particularly dangerous or outrageous behavior. A hit and run certainly might qualify. Learn more about punitive damages in car accident cases.
Treble damages awarded to the plaintiff are tripled where a statute requires or allows it. For example, if the jury in a civil suit awards the plaintiff $10,000 in damages, a statute related to civil penalties for hit and run might allow the judge to automatically triple that amount to $30,000 because the hit and run amounts to particularly reckless and egregious conduct.
In most instances, punitive and treble damages are not covered by your car insurance policy. In other words, you will have to pay that amount out of your own pocket.
In addition to the other penalties we've already touched on, many insurance companies have a practice of canceling your automobile insurance policy if you commit (or are convicted of) a hit and run.
If you've fled the scene of your car accident and are ready to discuss your situation with a legal professional, you might want to start by reaching out to a car accident lawyer in your area. If your case would be better off in the hands of a different kind of an attorney (one who specializes in criminal defense, for example) a car accident lawyer can always recommend the right course of action.