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This is one of the few types of traffic accidents where the answer is an unequivocal "Yes!" Leaving the scene of an accident is illegal in all 50 states and carries stiff criminal penalties as well as civil consequences.
Hit and Run Defined
In a hit and run accident, the "running" driver hits either another car, a pedestrian, or private property. Hit and run is typically defined as leaving the scene of accident without first stopping to render aid, even if no one was hurt. This is because, by leaving without rendering aid, the running driver does not know whether anyone was injured. Circumstances unique to each hit and run accident determine whether it is deemed a felony or misdemeanor.
Minimum Legal Requirements After a Hit and Run Accident
Legally, all drivers are considered aware of their responsibilities when an accident occurs. First, both parties are required to provide identification and exchange contact and insurance information. If the accident is severe, notifying the police is also required. In the event anyone is injured, whether a driver or a passenger, contacting emergency services is the minimum requirement in all 50 states. Some states go further and require actually transporting the injured party to a site where he or she can receive medical help. As each of these requirements necessitates stopping after an accident, hit and run is always illegal, even if no one is injured.
What are Criminal Consequences of a Hit and Run?
As stated, leaving the scene of an accident may be categorized as either a misdemeanor or a felony. If the victim was injured or killed, the running driver faces felony charges, including jail time. Even if the fleeing driver was not at fault for the accident, he or she faces criminal penalties for failure to meet the minimum legal requirements of an accident. Additionally, any passenger in the fleeing vehicle who encouraged the driver to leave the scene may also face criminal charges.
If the hit and run driver is identified and charged, a conviction can be used to prove liability in a related civil suit. If you discover the driver was caught and faces charges, contact the prosecutor's office. He or she may offer the fleeing driver probation; it is possible to make compensation of your damages one of the conditions of probation. Failure to comply with this requirement may cause a revocation of the probation, resulting in jail time for the offending party.
What are Civil Consequences of a Hit and Run?
In addition to compensatory damages, in which the plaintiff (the victim) receives payment for property damaged in the accident, the defendant (the fleeing driver) is typically held responsible for punitive damages as well.
Compensatory damages include medical bills, lost wages, and pain and suffering. These are not a reflection on the defendant's behavior but instead are proportionate to the offense committed. Punitive damages, on the other hand, are a form of punishment for bad behavior and are reserved for occasions in which the defendant harms another through either intentional or reckless behavior. Though the accident was likely unintended, drivers are "deemed legally aware of their responsibilities" in the event of an accident. Therefore, punitive damages are justified because leaving the scene of an accident is an intentional act.
How to Identify the Hit and Run Driver
Unfortunately, most hit and run drivers are not caught. Typically, the victim is stunned and in shock, unable to make a positive identification of either the driver or the vehicle. The police will investigate, but if you were uninjured in the accident they generally place a low priority on such cases.
There are methods of identifying the other driver. These include eye witnesses, license plate numbers, and simply asking around. Businesses in the area may have security camera footage of the accident or of the driver fleeing the scene. It is also possible the driver visited one of those businesses prior to the accident and can be identified that way. People in the neighborhood may recognize a description of either the car or the driver. A little effort may go a long way toward identifying the offender.
Contact a Hit and Run Attorney
If you are the victim of a hit and run driver, contact an attorney for a free consultation, preferably one experienced in handling accident cases involving hit and run drivers. An attorney will advise you on the likelihood of winning such a suit, as well as the financial viability of a civil suit.