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Is it Really a Hit and Run? Let’s Look at the Law

Most people have heard the term “hit and run,” and probably assume they understand what it means. However, the precise legal definition may differ from what people think they know. In addition, that legal definition varies from state to state, under different state laws.

A big myth is that a hit and run requires a serious injury or death. The media perpetuates this by overwhelmingly covering hit and run stories where pedestrians were struck by drivers who don’t stop. In actuality, the legal definition of hit and run is broader and covers more scenarios than just that one.

So, What Is a Hit and Run?

Hit and run applies even in minor accidents, and the “run” part, or leaving the scene after an accident, can constitute the primary violation of the law. Most states require drivers to stay on the scene anytime an accident causes property damage or injury to a person. Some states use an even broader definition that includes animals, making a driver who hits and abandons an animal criminally liable for animal cruelty, and potentially also civilly liable to the animal’s owner. In other words, a driver does not have to seriously injure or kill a person to commit a hit and run. Of course, doing so makes the potential consequences more serious—but failing to stop after something as insignificant as knocking out another car’s tail light can also fall under the hit and run statutes of your state.

What if a Driver Hit a Parked Car or Fence?

A driver who hits and damages a parked car or unattended vehicle must take reasonable steps to contact the owner. Generally, this requires writing a note with complete contact information and leaving it under the damaged vehicle’s windshield wiper. Drivers should also note the license plate number of the vehicle they hit and file an incident report with the police, but they are not expected to wait around for hours, hoping the owner will return.

Under Illinois law, drivers are specifically required to leave a note and report the incident to the police, in writing. This equally applies when a driver hits a fence, wall, tree, or other property. Drivers should also contact their insurance company, even though it may be tempting not to. Insurance companies can deny claims for damage to the insured driver’s vehicle based on the failure to report. Furthermore, drivers who fail to report are more likely to face lawsuits, and their insurance companies may be able to disclaim all liability for damages.

What If Someone Is Hurt or Killed?

In a serious accident when someone was injured or killed, a hit and run may constitute a felony, up to and including a Class 1 felony, which carries the greatest penalties. (For reference, even in hit and run accidents where only property damage takes place, the subsequent misdemeanor charge can still carry a maximum penalty of one year in jail.)

When accidents involve injuries or fatalities, drivers must fulfill additional requirements. Under Illinois law, drivers must stop at the scene—or as close as is safe—and try to avoid obstructing traffic until police arrive.

In cases where the driver was injured and must leave the scene for emergency care, the driver can report the accident to a nearby police station or sheriff’s office as soon as injuries permit. Police may also come to the hospital to take statements, and an injured driver may make a report then. In circumstances where the driver was hospitalized but uninjured passengers are able to make a report at the scene of the accident, they may do so.

Felony Hit and Run Consequences

Felony hit and run carries severe consequences. In Illinois, felony hit and run can be a Class 2 felony, and a guilty driver may face three to seven years in prison. When a hit and run has caused a fatality, the driver may go to prison for as long as 15 years. Even in less serious cases, drivers with a hit and run convictions will have a permanent criminal record and the state will suspend their driver’s licenses for at least six months—although they may receive lifetime revocations.

If You Caused an Accident

If you caused an accident, always stop and check on the status of any other involved parties, and call for medical help if needed. Always exchange complete contact information with the other driver(s), call the police, and call your insurance company. Even if your accident only involves property damage, follow these critically important steps.

Leaving the scene of an accident can result in criminal penalties, and can also increase civil penalties: If victims sue and the driver who left the scene is found liable, the court may impose treble damages (three times what the jury actually awards). Even in the least serious cases, a hit and run can cause an insurance company to cancel a driver’s policy.

The bottom line is, nobody should leave the scene of an accident! Except in cases where you have suffered an injury and leave to seek immediate medical attention, the law almost always will always consider it a hit and run, even if the only apparent damage is a dent to another car in a parking lot. If the vehicle is unattended, leave a note and call the police. Otherwise, stay on the scene until all reports are filed. Ensure there are no injuries, and if there were witnesses, get their complete contact details as well. Witness statements can prove critical for both insurance claims and lawsuits.

If you were a hit and run victim, speak to a lawyer as soon as possible. Contact the experienced lawyers at Abels & Annes, PC, for a free consultation at (312) 924-7575 or online, and learn if we may be able to help you.

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