A hit and run is a traffic offense that occurs when an individual is involved in a vehicular accident and illegally leaves the scene of the accident. In most states, traffic laws provide that an individual who is involved in an accident must undertake certain steps after the accident to ensure that all parties are safe and the proper information is exchanged. A hit and run occurs when a driver fails to follow through on these obligations and leaves the scene, often to avoid responsibility for what has occurred. A hit and run can occur when two drivers collide, when a driver hits a pedestrian or a motorcycle, or when a driver hits an unoccupied vehicle or a structure.
When a driver is involved in an accident, state law imposes certain legal responsibilities on the driver to ensure that the accident is handled properly. A driver may be required to take several important steps before leaving the location of the accident. These include:
Stopping the vehicle and moving it to a safe location;
Evaluating the damage that has occurred to all involved properties or individuals;
Exchanging necessary contact information;
Seeking medical assistance if any person has been injured; and
Calling the police, if necessary.
Fault does not matter in assessing a hit and run. A driver must stop even if the other party caused the accident.
Even when an accident involves unoccupied vehicles or other property for which there is no clear owner, a driver must make a reasonable effort to identify the owner and inform him or her of what has happened. For instance, a driver may be required to leave a note at the scene of the accident describing what occurred and providing contact information. Or the driver may take down identifying information, such as the license plate number or address of the property, that will allow the driver to track down the owner.
If a driver who is in an accident fails to follow these steps or otherwise fulfill his or her legal responsibilities, this may constitute a hit and run. Depending on the severity of the accident that occurred, the driver may be liable for significant civil and criminal penalties.
Criminal Penalties for a Hit and Run Accident
At the very least, a driver who commits a hit and run will likely be subjected to a traffic ticket for his or her failure to stay at the scene of the accident. In many circumstances, however, the harm resulting from the accident may be more severe, and the driver can face stiffer penalties. In most states, damage to a structure or unoccupied vehicle may result in a misdemeanor hit and run charge, while leaving the scene of an accident where an injury to a person has occurred can result in felony charges. Leaving the scene when there was a death or serious injury to another person will typically result in significant jail time and fines of up to $20,000. Since leaving an injured person puts him or her at great risk of serious harm and suggests a disregard for life and safety, state laws treat such actions very harshly.
A hit and run that results in another person’s death will likely also lead to vehicular homicide charges.
Civil Penalties for a Hit and Run Accident
In addition to being able to press criminal charges against the perpetrator of a hit and run, a victim of a hit and run accident may also pursue civil penalties against a driver for the harm that he or she experienced. This can include lost wages, medical bills, pain and suffering, and damage to property. In many states, victims may seek punitive damages as well, which are designed to punish the offender for intentional or reckless conduct. Punitive damages are not based on how much money the victim lost in dealing with the accident, but rather the amount of money it would take to punish the driver for illegal actions. If a crime is egregious, or a driver shows a lack of remorse, punitive damages can be quite significant.