By Logan Quirk
Any auto collision or other vehicular accident is a terrifying and stressful experience – but a hit and run makes it far worse. Beyond the incident itself, there is a lot to consider after an accident. You have to exchange information with other involved parties, begin the insurance process, and, if necessary, begin proceedings in order to obtain a settlement. When you are the victim of a hit and run accident, however, things become even more daunting. Your immediate thought will naturally be, “I’m going to be left to deal with all of this myself!” The anger, confusion and fear caused can cloud your judgment and result in decisions that are not in your best interest. However, we are here to lay out for you the best course of action to take when you are involved in a hit and run accident.
What Is a Hit And Run Accident?
A hit and run accident is defined as one where one of the parties involved leaves the scene without providing contact information to the other individuals affected. It is important to note that even if you clearly are not at fault, leaving the scene in such a way is still considered a hit and run.
Taking this definition into account, a hit and run is not only when a driver hits another car, cyclist or pedestrian and immediately drives off. If you are hit by a driver, talk with him or her, and they leave without providing contact information (e.g. arguing that the damage is minor and driving off angrily), that person has committed a hit and run. Many of us have also had the exasperating experience of returning to our parked car to find a careless driver has hit it and simply driven off. This also falls under the umbrella of hit and run! In California, if an accident is fairly serious, you may also be charged with hit and run if you leave the scene before the police arrive – even if you have provided contact information.
There are, of course, understandable exceptions – for example, a passenger has been badly injured and the driver wants to rush them to the hospital. However, if a driver intentionally leaves the scene of an accident without providing contact information, you should assume you have been the victim of a hit and run and take the following steps.
AT THE SCENE
Get as Much Information About the Offending Car and Its Driver as Possible
If you are physically and mentally able to, immediately attempt to shake off any shock and begin observing features of the other car and its driver. These include:
- Car Make
- Car Model
- License Plate
- Unique Features of the Vehicle (bumper stickers, graphics, accessories etc.)
- Driver’s Appearance (Sex, hair color and length, build, unique features, clothing)
After moving your car safely off the road, ensuring there are no serious injuries and calling the police, immediately record what you were able to observe. A helpful action that is often overlooked is collecting anything left behind by the offending vehicle. No matter how small or damaged, these items can help identify the vehicle. For example, an identifiable light fixture will provide both the make and model as well as an age range for the vehicle, while a body piece can help at least identify the manufacturer through the paint color and type. DO NOT chase after the offending driver! This can cause another, more serious accident – or result in an altercation, which could in itself have serious consequences.
Recall and Record the Circumstances of the Crash
Before they slip your memory (and the scene becomes busier with the arrival of police and onlookers), note and record the circumstances of the accident. If you do not have the means to do so physically, replay the details repeatedly in your mind and commit them to memory. It will help the police, insurance and all other investigating parties to know information such as:
- The time and exact spot where the accident occurred
- What direction each car was traveling in
- What approximate speed each car was traveling at
- Were there additional factors (weather, another vehicle, the condition of the road)
- Any other possibly pertinent information
Be sure to take pictures of your car and the accident scene. Only if it is absolutely safe to do so (you are in gridlocked traffic or an area like a parking lot where you can clearly see there is no oncoming traffic) should you attempt to take a picture of your car where it stands before moving it out of the way.
Attempt to Find Witnesses to the Accident
In a hit and run situation, witnesses can be one of your biggest assets. If there are clearly other witnesses to the accident, immediately attempt to make contact with them. It is worth it to ask around in the vicinity of the accident as well, as someone many feet away may have actually observed the entire incident and have invaluable information. Ask them if they will be willing to stay and make a report to the police. Understandably, this may not be possible in many cases. However, be sure to ask for their contact information – many people will be far more willing to provide information over the phone or at a later date when they are not in transit. Be sure to directly take any pertinent information they may have yourself just in case as well.
Report the Incident to the Police
If someone is injured, call 911 before taking any of the preceding steps (other than observing, of course). If not, call the police as soon as you have ‘secured’ the scene – collected any left behind evidence and approached witnesses that may have otherwise left. While you wait is the perfect time to compile all the observations you’ve made. When they arrive, you can clearly and concisely make your report to the police and have witnesses corroborate your version of events and add helpful information. If, for any reason, you cannot make a report immediately, ensure you do so or someone does so on your behalf within 24 hours.
In the case of very minor ‘fender benders’, police may inform you that the damage is too minor for them to file an accident report. This is the protocol for many police departments and can’t be helped. However, you should neither simply go home, nor argue with the officer. Rather, thank the officer for his or help and politely ask for his name, badge number and precinct – explaining it is for insurance reasons. This will protect you when you attempt to have the incident categorized as a “not-at-fault” loss. While, as we will see, California protects victims of hit and runs from having their insurance premiums increased, it is always a good idea to also protect your good standing with your insurer.
FOLLOWING THE ACCIDENT
Contact Your Insurer
Just like an accident where the other party did not flee the scene, you should make an insurance claim as soon as possible. Here, the more information you can provide, the better. Believe it or not, some unscrupulous individuals attempt to fake hit and run accidents in order to have insurance cover damage they have caused themselves (or even write off a vehicle to receive a payout!). Being able to clearly show that you were hit by another car removes any doubt that you were the victim of an accident, and increases the chances of a favorable outcome with your insurer.
There are unique considerations when making a hit and run claim, especially in California. For instance, California is one of six states that do not allow uninsured motorist coverage to be used to pay for a hit and run. This means that, unless you are unable to identify the offending driver, collision coverage, “Med Pay” and personal injury protection are your options. This also means that, in most cases, you will have to pay a deductible. And as it is not mandatory to carry any of these types of coverage in California, if you are paying the absolute minimum, you may be forced to cover all damages yourself.
There is good news, however – California law forbids insurance companies from raising their rates after a verified hit and run, providing it was reported in a ‘reasonable’ amount of time. This brings us back to – you guessed it – getting all the evidence you possibly can to prove you were indeed the victim of a hit and run, and reporting the accident in a timely fashion.
Action if the Driver Is Found
Thanks to your keen observation (and that of witnesses), or possibly as a result of a police investigation, the offending hit and run driver may be located after the fact. It is also a fairly common occurrence that following the initial panic, the driver realizes that he is facing at best a misdemeanor charge, and at worst (if someone was injured) a felony charge, and turns himself in. At this point, the police will decide whether to levy these charges against him or to wait and see how he handles the situation (insurance and any additional compensation).
It is always a good idea to retain the services of an experienced accident lawyer. You are in somewhat of an advantageous position here – the offender’s choice to flee the scene has already placed some suspicion of guilt on his or her head, and avoiding charges may be contingent on cooperating fully with you and your insurance company. However, there is a very real possibility that the reason the driver fled was a lack of insurance or being underinsured. In short, this means that any insurance the driver may or may not have will not be sufficient to pay for your damages (property loss and/or medical).
If you have uninsured motorist coverage on your insurance plan, now that the driver has been identified you can use this to pay for any damages that may have occurred. If you do not, however, you may have to bring legal proceedings against the offender in order to receive compensation. It is an unfortunate but unsurprising fact that many drivers without insurance or who are underinsured also do not have the finances to pay thousands or tens of thousands of dollars outright. In this case, a court may garnish their wages or seize their assets in order to secure the judgment decided on. It is not unheard of, however, where even these techniques are unable to raise the funds awarded.
Protecting Yourself After a Hit and Run
All other factors being equal, a hit and run is certainly one of the most upsetting and frustrating types of accidents you can be involved in. Beyond the inconsideration and sheer lawlessness of the act, it may also result in an unfair financial burden being put on your shoulders. Whether the individual who fled the scene is later identified or not, you could have trouble getting the compensation you deserve on your own. Depending on how cooperative they are and what the details are of both your insurance policy and theirs, there are a lot of potential outcomes in a hit and run case. Without someone who understands the details of the law fighting on your side, it’s not likely any other party is going to make sure you receive the maximum amount you are entitled to.
This is where experienced accident lawyers such as those at Quirk Law Group can help. Having seen many of these cases, we are very familiar with what options are available to you, depending on the circumstances. Where on your own you may simply be told by insurance companies ‘there is nothing we can do’, we will expertly fight for your rights and ensure that you are not left financially burdened by something that was not at all your fault. Victim of a hit and run accident? Contact us today, and let us help you get the compensation you deserve!