It’s a fairly common parking lot accident scenario: you're pulling into or out of a spot, and you accidentally bump into a parked car. Maybe it’s just a little "paint exchange," or maybe there’s actual body damage to one or both cars. No one is around, you wait for a half an hour or so. You need to leave for an appointment, but you also want to do the right thing, so you leave a note on the car’s windshield, with your name and phone number, even your car insurance carrier and policy number. Is this enough to insulate you from liability? The answer is the dreaded "yes and no." Read on for the details.
In every state, vehicle codes and traffic laws set out a licensed driver's obligations after any kind of traffic accident, including a scenario where a parked vehicle is hit, and the owner isn't around. For example, under California Vehicle Code section 20002, if a California driver hits a parked vehicle and is unable to identify and speak with the owner, the driver is required to:
[l]eave in a conspicuous place on the vehicle or other property damaged a written notice giving the name and address of the driver and of the owner of the vehicle involved and a statement of the circumstances thereof and shall without unnecessary delay notify the police department of the city wherein the collision occurred or, if the collision occurred in unincorporated territory, the local headquarters of the Department of the California Highway Patrol.
In California or elsewhere, if you take steps like this, and do what you can under the circumstances (not simply drive away), you should be safe from criminal liability of any sort, such as penalties for leaving the scene of a car accident.
So, even though state traffic and vehicle codes vary in terms of a driver’s obligations when hitting a parked car or causing damage to property, you’ve probably met those obligations by leaving a note that includes your contact and insurance information, and then reporting the incident to local law enforcement.
So, that’s one half of the "liability" question – your obligations under your state’s traffic laws -- but the other half is your monetary liability for any vehicle damage you caused to the parked car.
The owner of the parked car can try to hold you responsible for paying for any necessary car repairs, including body work and painting touch-ups. And just because you don’t hear from the car owner right away, that doesn’t mean you won’t hear from them at all.
Though the time limits vary from state to state, people usually have at least two years to bring a lawsuit for property damage after an accident (under a law known as a "statute of limitations"). So, you may need to potentially "sweat it out" for years to come, since the person whose car you hit can bring a claim or file a lawsuit at any point before the statutory period runs out.
The (potential) good news is that, if you have car insurance, chances are your liability coverage will pay for the damage to the parked car (up to policy limits, of course). But keep in mind that if you don’t notify your car insurance company right away that you hit another car, you may end up forfeiting your right to make a claim under your coverage, or to have your carrier defend you in the event that the owner of the other car does decide to pursue a claim against you. Most policies require that you notify the insurer of any potential claim within a reasonable time. That’s one more reason to contact your car insurance company after any kind of accident.