What are your legal options when someone flees the accident scene?
In Georgia, hit and run accidents are in a category all their own. The situation is different when the person causing the accident leaves. What are you supposed to do? You can’t chase them down. Your car is damaged, and it’s against the law to leave the scene of an accident anyway.
In the paragraphs below, we will look into some of the most common types of hit and run accidents and consider what you should do to recover your losses.
What to do after a hit and run in Georgia
- Don’t leave the accident scene. If you are hit by another vehicle, and the driver that caused the accident leaves the scene, do NOT chase after them. Chasing someone on a public road could cause another accident, for which you could be held partially. Also, in accidents that are minor to moderate in severity, there could be a temptation to leave and call the police from work or home. Always stay at the accident scene.
- Call 911. Contact law enforcement to come to the accident scene and write a police report. When the police arrive, do your best to describe the car (year, make, model), the driver, and the damage to the other vehicle. In the eyes of an insurance adjuster, the credibility of a hit and run report will be much higher when it is reported to a police officer from the scene of the accident.
- Take scene photos. While you wait for police to arrive, take photos of the accident scene, including your vehicle and debris on the ground to help demonstrate that the accident did take place as claimed. In some hit and run scenarios, the driver that caused the accident is initially present and may interact with you for a few minutes. However, you never know if someone is going to leave the scene suddenly. While they are still at the scene with you, take photos of their license plate as quickly as possible. Take photos of their vehicle damage as well.
In some cases, the at-fault driver will want to exchange information and not contact police. This is not recommended. The other driver may give either false or outdated information. If the other driver is pressing the issue and you feel they are about to leave, go ahead and ask them to produce their insurance information and driver’s license. Take photos of both. If they suddenly leave, you have enough to show the police.
- Take note of any witness. After an accident, typically other drivers will pull over to make sure everyone is okay and unhurt. This is a good opportunity to ask if anyone saw the accident happen. If they did, get their contact information. Ask them to tell the reporting officer their version of what happened and have them listed on the police report as a witness. If the at-fault driver left before you could get a good description of the car, ask the witness what they saw. Did they catch the license plate number? Could they tell the year, make, and model of the other car. It is important to get this information from witnesses as soon as able.
Often, people are in a hurry and don’t want to stay at the accident scene for an indefinite amount of time. And sometimes a witness may become nervous that they will be called later to appear in court and they simply don’t want to be bothered. Try to get the information sooner rather than later in case they start having second thoughts and decide to leave.
If a witness does have to leave, ask for their name and phone number so that you can provide it to the police. In cases where liability could become a question, a witness may be willing to write a notarized statement of what they saw. If the reporting officer doesn’t include your witness on the police report, you can at least get a notarized statement sent to the insurance adjuster as part of your evidence. An independent witness is one of the strongest pieces of evidence an insurance adjuster can receive.
How to secure damages for a hit and run
Hit and run where the driver is known
Not every hit and run driver gets away with leaving the scene of an accident. Even if the at-fault driver is yet to be contacted by the police, the investigating officer will often move forward with the information you provide and document the accident report accordingly. In cases where license plate numbers are photographed or even provided verbally, the investigating officer will usually note on the police report all the information he or she found when they ran the plate. Once the police run the plate, this should inform the police officer of the year, make, and model of the car in question as well as the last known insurance information for the other car involved.
When you get a copy of the police report, you will see the insurance carrier noted by the police or the hit and run driver. This means you can put the other driver on the hook for the damage they caused. If you can, you want to avoid using your own coverage. Run an online search for the insurance carrier listed on the police report and call in your claim. You will likely talk to a recorded line at first. No need to be nervous. Just carefully explain what happened and don’t say anything that could inadvertently sound like you are partially responsible for causing the accident. With the police report in front of you, supply all the information you see on the report. In doing so, you are setting yourself up to have your damages covered by the insurance company of the hit and run driver.
Hit and run where the driver is NOT known
Sometimes, even the best efforts result in an inability to locate the driver who left the accident scene. In this case, you are likely going to have to turn to your own insurance policy for help. This often creates feelings of frustration and a sense of unfairness. After all, why should you have to go through your own insurance for something you didn’t cause in the first place? Unfortunately, if you’re in a hit and run accident and the at-fault driver cannot be found, then it means their insurance company also isn’t known and cannot cover your damages. Therefore, your options are limited.
In Georgia, many hit and run accident victims turn to the uninsured coverage on their own policy; however, this option has its conditions. These conditions are set forth in Georgia law (OCGA 33-7-11). Generally speaking, in order to substantiate an uninsured motorist claim, a police report is required as well as evidence of physical contact between the vehicle of the unknown driver and your own vehicle. Physical contact isn’t required if the description by the victim of how the accident took place is corroborated by an eyewitness to the accident.
How to file an uninsured motorist claim with your insurance company
Step 1: Put your own insurance on notice immediately
After a hit and run accident, your best bet is if the at-fault driver is caught and forced to pay for your damages. But if they are not, you will have no choice but to contact your own insurance and make them aware of the accident. Most auto insurance policies have language that stipulates that the insured has a contractual obligation to contact their insurance carrier after an accident. Failure to do so can result in a coverage denial.
For example, Mr. Jones is struck by a hit and run driver. He was able to memorize the license plate of the at-fault driver as they fled the scene. Mr. Jones is furious and is determined to find the culprit. He is also determined that he isn’t going to have his own insurance premiums go up on account of someone else’s negligence, so he never calls in the claim to his own carrier.
Mr. Jones pays to have his vehicle towed from the storage yard (where it is incurring storage fees) to his home. He reported the accident to the police, but the police found nothing that corresponds to that license plate number. Mr. Jones isn’t sure what to do next, so he hires an attorney who is unfamiliar with car accident cases. In the meantime, Mr. Jones is receiving medical treatment for soft tissue neck and back injuries he suffered as a result of the accident.
Time passes and Mr. Jones continues his treatment and checks in with his attorney from time to time. However, after 9 months, the hit and run driver still hasn’t been found. In frustration, he gives up and decides to contact his own insurance carrier to make an uninsured motorist claim for his property damage and personal injuries.
To his surprise, he is met with opposition by the adjuster who advises Mr. Jones that he has a contractual obligation to immediately notify them after an accident. The insurance adjuster sends Mr. Jones a letter that quotes the policy language verbatim. There is no ambiguity. Because he didn’t put his insurance on notice promptly, the insurance carrier was able to effectively deny coverage and pay nothing on his claim.
Moral of the story: Always put your own insurance on notice immediately following a hit and run accident.
Step 2: Obtain and review your insurance policy declarations page
To recover damages in an uninsured motorist claim, certain conditions must be met. Probably the most obvious is that you must have uninsured motorist coverage on your policy in the first place. This might seem to go without saying, but it’s not uncommon for people to be unsure as to what coverage they have.
If you aren’t certain of the different types of coverage you have on your policy, you should contact your insurance carrier and request a copy of the declarations page (sometimes called “the dec page”). The dec page is a one page summary of all coverages you have purchased. This is a quick way to determine if you do or do not have uninsured motorist coverage. If you have it, you’re good to go. Uninsured motorist coverage will cover both property damage and bodily injuries in a hit and run.
If you believe you have been paying for uninsured motorist coverage but it’s not on the dec page, call your carrier and challenge what you find. In Georgia, anyone who rejects uninsured motorist coverage must do so by way of a selection rejection form. Ask your carrier for a copy of the form you were supposed to have signed. When you receive it, look to see that you actually rejected uninsured motorist coverage. Usually this involves a box that you checked signifying that you select or reject this coverage. If the document isn’t signed and dated (fully executed), it is of no effect. In that case, your carrier cannot solidly prove that you have rejected uninsured motorist coverage. The benefit of the doubt goes to you, and the uninsured motorist coverage should be instated retroactively. This should grant uninsured motorist coverage for your accident.
In rare cases, mix-ups happen when an insured person made changes to their policy by phone. We recently had a case where our client had an accident and their insurance carrier told them they no longer had full coverage. They explained that he had recently called in and requested all coverage be removed except liability. The client was very upset and claimed he never made this request.
We suggested he call his carrier and ask them to review the recording of his prior conversation where he allegedly asked for the coverage to be removed. The client followed through with our recommendation. The insurance carrier listened to the recorded conversation in question and determined that the representative for the carrier wasn’t clear in her explanations to our client. The carrier retroactively restored all prior coverage, and the client was then able to receive payment for damages after his loss.
Step 3: Look for opportunities to stack policies in your home
If your uninsured motorist claim involves serious injuries, then you will probably need as much help as possible from every insurance policy available. You should know that if there is more than one insurance policy containing uninsured motorist coverage in your home, there is a possibility that those policies may apply to your case. This is called “stacking.”
Typically, eligibility for stacking of uninsured motorist coverage occurs when there are multiple vehicles within the same household, and those vehicles are covered by separate policies also having uninsured motorist coverage.
For example, if you have $25,000 in uninsured motorist coverage and two other family members in the same household also have $25,000 in uninsured coverage on their own separate policy, each of those additional policy coverages may stack on top of your own coverage, providing a total coverage in the amount of $75,000. Each stackable policy should be carefully examined to ensure applicability.
Punitive damages in hit and run cases in Georgia
In cases involving bodily injury to yourself, hit and run accidents are of great concern to the insurance company covering the at-fault driver. Insurance carriers understand that even in the most conservative venues, juries don’t respond well to hit and run drivers. In fact, there is a special category set aside for assessing damages owed to a plaintiff in a hit and run accident called punitive damages.
While compensatory damages are assessed to determine how much one should receive for the pain and suffering caused by another’s negligent actions, punitive damages are separate and distinct. Punitive damages are an assessment of damages that is above and beyond compensatory damages, and “may be awarded only in such tort actions in which it is proved by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant’s actions showed willful misconduct, malice, fraud, wantonness, oppression, or that entire want of care which would raise the presumption of conscious indifference to consequences.” (O.C.G.A. § 51-12-5.1(b))
For example, you might be granted $7,000 in pain and suffering for a hit and run by a jury. But in a case where punitive damages applies (and hit and runs often qualify), there will be an additional allowance that could potentially go as high as $10,000 in punitive damages, making the total settlement above your medical expenses to be $17,000.
In liberal venues known for high jury verdicts, an adjuster is going to be incentivized to settle a hit and run case early before it gets out of hand in front of a jury. Don’t be surprised if you are offered a surprising amount of money to settle out early. This is also the adjuster’s efforts to resolve the case before it gets into the hands of an attorney who can obtain a settlement that is much more desirable.
Punitive damages and uninsured motorist claims
Unfortunately, punitive damages are typically not covered in an uninsured motorist claim. Punitive damages are intended to punish the driver who is guilty of bad conduct. But where there is no person to punish, punitive damages cannot apply.
Sometimes this issue is brought up in debates between adjusters and attorneys. The adjuster attempts to contend that the value of the case is lower, arguing that uninsured hit and run cases disallow punitive damages. The adjuster may be technically correct, but this is not the end of the discussion by any means.
All adjusters know (or ought to know) that the aggravating circumstances of a hit and run accident still can cause jurors to grant larger than usual verdicts despite any rule the adjuster wants to argue. This is no small point and is often underestimated by the insurance companies.
When to contact a Georgia hit and run lawyer
At Scholle Law, our Atlanta car accident lawyers represent clients in ALL types of auto accidents, including hit and runs.
We have extensive experience negotiating with insurance adjusters to secure the maximum possible compensation for our clients, even in cases where the at-fault driver cannot be found.