If you hit a parked car (in a parking lot or elsewhere), here's what to know at the outset:
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 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.
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.
If you take steps like the ones outlined above after hitting a parked car, 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 "hit and run" or leaving the scene of a car accident.
But failure to comply with applicable traffic laws after hitting a parked vehicle can result in hit and run charges, especially if the incident results in a significant amount of property damage. Maybe you're wondering, how does an accident become a potentially criminal act? In this situation, the accident occurred when you hit the vehicle. The criminal (intentional) act happened in the wake of the accident: you decided to drive away from the scene without fulfilling your legal obligations.
As long as no injuries resulted from the accident, the crime charged will likely fall under the category of misdemeanor (less serious than a felony, but still significant). Criminal penalties vary from state to state, but punishment for a misdemeanor can include jail time and/or a fine. Most states classify their misdemeanors according to perceived seriousness, and set potential punishment accordingly. Learn more about the consequences of a hit and run accident.
So far we've covered half of the "liability" question—your obligations under your state's traffic laws and potential criminal penalties for a parked car hit and hun—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.
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.
Technically speaking, without damage to a parked vehicle, there's no hit and run crime, and there's no financial responsibility to assume. Your obligation to stop, find the vehicle owner, leave a note, and/or report the accident all presume that the vehicle was damaged when you hit it.
But the absence of visible damage isn't conclusive proof that the car you hit came through the incident unscathed. There could be damage you can't see (to the suspension, or the vehicle frame, for example). Bottom line: Driving away because you can't see visible damage isn't a good strategy after hitting a parked vehicle.
There's always a chance that the vehicle owner got your note, saw that the vehicle damage was minor, and decided not to take any action. But just because you didn't hear from the car owner right away, or within a few weeks, 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 a while, since the person whose car you hit can file a lawsuit at any point before the statutory period runs out.
By mere virtue of the fact that you hit a parked vehicle, you're almost certainly not going to escape financial responsibility for the resulting property damage. If the car was parked illegally, you can make a plausible argument that the vehicle owner bears some amount of fault for the accident, and that could reduce your share of liability, depending on your state's contributory or comparative negligence rules.
Let's say you hit a parked car. You leave a note, and the vehicle's owner calls you the next day. You give them your car insurance information, and they end up making a claim with your insurance carrier. The vehicle repair estimate is $2,200, and since you've got $10,000 in property damage liability coverage, your insurance company pays out on the claim.
It might be true that you "only" hit a parked car, but for your insurance company, the analysis is the same as it would be after any kind of traffic accident: Your negligence led to an avoidable crash, and the insurance company was forced to bear financial responsibility for that negligence. So, you're probably seen as more of a "risk" now than you were before the parked car incident happened, meaning there's a really good chance that your car insurance rates (the "premium" you pay every month) will go up. Learn more about factors that affect your car insurance premiums.
If your parked vehicle gets hit, there are a few steps you can take to protect yourself and try to identify the responsible driver:
Accidents involving parked cars can lead to a number of potential outcomes, and it's not typical to need a lawyer's help along the way. But no matter which side of the scenario you're on (whether you hit a parked car or your own parked vehicle was hit), there could be a lot at stake for you financially, especially if vehicle damage is extensive and there's no applicable insurance. In that situation (and others) you might want to discuss your options—and your best path forward—with an experienced legal professional.
Learn more about how an attorney can help after a car accident, or use the tools right on this page to connect with a lawyer. Answer a few (confidential) questions and get a free case evaluation from a local attorney.