Hit-and-Run: Victims Have Rights and Recourse in the Absence of the At-Fault Driver
California Laws on Hit-and-Run Accidents
California law requires drivers to stop their vehicles if they are involved in an accident that causes injury or property damage. When a driver fails to stop as required, his or her actions in leaving the accident scene may be classified as either a misdemeanor or as a felony, explained a California injury lawyer.
California Vehicle Code section 20002 defines misdemeanor hit-and-run:
• Leaving the scene of an accident without identifying yourself to the other individuals involved (either in person or via a conspicuously placed written note)
• When property is damaged in the crash
A person in violation of this code section may face penalties for a misdemeanor conviction including a fine of up to $1,000 and/or up to six months of jail time.
California Vehicle Code section 20001 contains similar provisions but far more serious penalties in the event that a driver flees an accident scene where the crash has caused injury or death to someone else. Vehicle Code section 20001 indicates what is required by law of the driver of a vehicle involved in such an accident:
• Immediately stop at the scene of the crash
• Provide contact information
• Render reasonable aid including contacting medical help
• Report the accident to law enforcement and/or the California Highway Patrol if death resulted and there was no police or traffic officer at the scene.
A failure to obey these rules can result in felony charges that lead to penalties up to and including four years of jail time with an additional five years of imprisonment if the hit-and-run occurred in conjunction with other violations of the penal code.
The Rights of Hit-and-Run Victims
Criminal charges are brought against those who flee the scene of an accident in order to act as a deterrent and to ensure people are punished if they are involved in a crash and do not help those they injure. However, these criminal charges do not help the victims of a hit-and-run with the expenses associated with their recoveries, explains a California injury lawyer.
Typically, an injured party may make a claim for damages from the driver responsible for causing the accident. The driver who negligently, carelessly or wrongfully caused the crash will be responsible for paying the victim’s medical bills and for providing compensation for lost wages/income, pain and suffering and emotional distress. In the event that the car accident results in a death, the at-fault party would be responsible for compensating the victim’s family for loss of companionship and financial support.
In the case of a hit-and-run, that victim is unable to take legal action until the at-fault driver is found. Law enforcement will launch an investigation into finding the driver, but there is no guarantee that he or she will be found.
If the hit-and-run driver is identified, the injured victim or surviving family members will be able to make a legal claim for damages. The victim will need to prove that the hit-and-run driver was the driver responsible for the crash, in addition to proving the standard elements of a car accident case, including negligence and damages incurred.
Unfortunately, uninsured motorists cause many hit-and-run accidents. In these cases, even finding the responsible driver is no guarantee that the injured victim will be able to successfully obtain damages, as the driver would have limited or no assets to pay for losses.
Victims of hit-and-run accidents, therefore, may be best served by exploring the possibility of making an uninsured motorist claim, according to a California injury lawyer.
Uninsured Motorist Claims in Hit-and-Run Accidents
In California, uninsured motorist coverage is included by law in every auto insurance policy unless the insured specifically declines the coverage in writing. This means that the victim of a hit-and-run likely will have uninsured motorist coverage. Such coverage can prove crucial to recovery in the event of a hit-and-run accident.
Uninsured motorist coverage stands in for a hit-and-run driver or for an uninsured driver who causes a crash. The victim of the accident, instead of taking legal action against the responsible driver, will make an uninsured motorist claim for damages. Provided the accident falls within the policy coverage, the uninsured motorist coverage will pay out all damages that the responsible driver was supposed to pay, up to the maximum policy limits.
The claim is different from a traditional car accident claim because the injured victim cannot make the choice to file a personal injury lawsuit if the insurer refuses a fair settlement as the victim could in a traditional car accident case. This leaves the insured more dependent upon negotiating with the insurance company to provide payments that fully cover all losses.
However, if an insurance company refuses to cooperate and to pay as required, California’s insurance bad faith laws allow the victim to sue the insurer for bad faith. This is a case in which the injured victim’s lawyer alleges the insurance company is violating the inherent obligation to act in good faith (act reasonably) that exists within insurance contracts.
When a claim is made for bad faith, the insurance company may not only have to pay out the money it should have based on the initial uninsured motorist claim but may also have to pay additional damages, sometimes in excess of policy limits, due to the wrongful failure to act reasonably when evaluating and approving or denying insurance claims.
Uninsured motorist coverage coupled with bad faith laws, therefore, work to protect California drivers injured in hit-and-runs to ensure they receive the compensation they need to pay their bills and support themselves after a crash.
Additional information on hit-and-run accidents and the civil claims process following an auto accident is available to the public free of charge through our office's Preferred Friends and Clients Program.
If you would like to request a free book or article, or to speak with a California injury lawyer, feel free to call 866-981-5596.