Civil Liability and Compensation in a Hit and Run Accident Case

Hit and run accidents present a few unique legal issues -- including significant civil and criminal consequences for the runner, and complications for victims seeking compensation.

If you are a victim of a hit run traffic accident, the legal consequences are more severe than in ordinary traffic accidents. This article discusses the responsibilities of drivers involved in an accident, the criminal and civil consequences of fleeing the scene, and the recovery options of a hit and run accident victim.

The Normal Duties of Drivers Involved in an Accident

All drivers have certain duties when they are involved in a traffic accident. First, if the accident involves an injury, an uninjured driver is typically required by state law to at minimum alert emergency services -- many states require more, such as transporting the victim to medical help when necessary.

If the accident is severe, it is also necessary to alert the police. Finally, it is necessary for the people involved in the accident to exchange contact and insurance information. Obviously, all of these obligations require that someone involved in the accident stop and not leave the scene.

Civil Consequences of a Hit-and-Run Accident

The main consequence of a hit-and-run in a civil injury lawsuit is the fact the plaintiff will likely recover punitive damages. Punitive damages are generally available when the person being sued (the "defendant") intentionally or recklessly causes harm, or acts in a particularly egregious manner.

The person suing (the "plaintiff") is entitled to damages that compensate him or her for medical expenses, pain and suffering, lost wages, etc. These types of damages must be proportionate to the harm caused and are not based on the defendant's behavior.

Punitive damages, however, are designed to punish and prevent bad conduct by serving as a warning to others. They are calculated not only in proportion to the defendant's lack of morality, but how much money it would take to effectively punish the defendant. In other words, the richer or poorer the defendant, the higher or lower the punitive damage amount will be.

Because everyone is deemed legally aware of their responsibilities at the scene of an accident, committing a "hit-and-run" will almost always be considered morally reprehensible and worthy of punitive damages. Even if the accident was unintentional, fleeing the scene was an intentional act potentially justifying punitive damages.

Criminal Consequences of Fleeing the Accident Scene

Depending on what kind of damage or injuries the accident caused, the criminal penalties for fleeing the scene of an accident can range from a misdemeanor to a felony. For the criminal consequences, see

If you hit someone and had reason to believe they were injured, but did not stop to help them, you could face jail time if they were hurt or killed.

A criminal conviction can also be used as additional evidence in a civil case that is based on the same accident. The civil case will usually be put on pause while the criminal case in prosecuted, but a criminal conviction is powerful evidence of liability that can lead to a faster resolution of the civil action.

For more on the criminal consequences of a hit and run, see Hit and Run Laws (on, opens in new window).

Who Pays for Damage and Injuries?

Unfortunately, victims of hit and run accidents are often forced to collect from their own insurance policies after a hit and run accident. Unless the running driver can be found through witness identification of their license plate, video evidence from the scene, by turning themselves in, or some other means, there is no way to hold him/her accountable.

In the few no-fault states -- District of Columbia, Florida, Hawaii, Kansas, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, and Utah -- injured drivers can to make a no-fault claim with their own insurer. (Here's how these work.)

In every other state, the most likely option for compensation will be to make an uninsured/underinsured motorist claim. For more on these types of claims, see: Making an Insurance Claim for Underinsured or Uninsured Drivers.

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