"Hit-and-run" has a nasty ring to it, and for good reason. Being involved in a car accident is enough to ruin anyone's day, but fleeing the scene of an accident turns the whole situation into a nightmare. And, the fear of being caught is just the beginning. If you zoom away from an accident, you may face severe civil and criminal penalties, including a misdemeanor or felony hit-and-run charge.
What is a Hit-and-Run?
A car accident occurs when you are a driver, and your car strikes a pedestrian or collides with another vehicle or a fixed object. A hit-and-run occurs when you then leave the scene of the accident without identifying yourself or helping anyone who might need assistance.
In many states, the hit-and-run charge is independent of and separate from the initial accident. You can be charged with a hit-and-run even if you were not at fault in the original accident. Hit-and-run is committed by leaving the scene.
Not every departure constitutes a hit-and-run. If you leave the accident scene in an attempt to summon emergency assistance (for example, searching for a cellphone signal, or to take a badly injured passenger to the hospital) and then come back, you won't be charged with a hit-and-run. It is your intention to flee that makes your act a hit-and-run.
Misdemeanor or Felony?
A misdemeanor is a lesser crime than a felony and is usually defined as a crime with a maximum penalty of under a year in jail. A felony is a more serious crime, one carrying a maximum penalty of over a year in prison. Hit-and-run can be either a misdemeanor or a felony depending on the circumstances. While state laws differ, most states label a hit-and-run a felony if anyone is injured in the initial accident, whether a motorist, a passenger or a pedestrian.
In Alabama, for example, a hit-and-run is a misdemeanor if only property damage is involved. It carries a maximum penalty of a year and a fine of not more than $6,000. If someone is injured or killed in the accident, the hit-and-run is a felony, punishable by a jail term over one year and not more than 10 years, plus a fine of up to $15,000.
In California, hit-and-runs can occur in parking lots as well as roads and highways. If the only damage is to property, hit-and-runs are misdemeanors, punishable by up to six months of jail time and $1,000 fine. If injury or death is involved, the fine can be up to $15,000 and the time in jail up to 15 years.
Further, hit-and-run convictions can trigger an automatic suspension or revocation of your driver’s license for a period of six months to three years. Depending on where you live and the circumstances of the accident, you may lose your license for decades, in addition to enduring criminal punishment.
Civil Cases Against Hit-and-Run Driver
Anyone injured through the fault of the hit-and-run driver can bring a law suit against the driver. The accident itself must be the hit-and-run driver's fault, however. If the driver flees the scene of an accident in which he was not at fault, he cannot be sued for damages from the accident (although he can be charged with a crime).
In some states, judges increase the amount of damages a driver has to pay for injuries if a hit-and-run was involved. For example, if the jury awarded the sum of $5,000, the court could double or triple this amount because of the driver's reckless hit-and-run behavior.
A hit-and-run accident can be a misdemeanor or a felony depending on the state and the type of damage caused. You are usually charged with felony hit-and-run if someone is injured.
Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an M.A. and an M.F.A in creative writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.