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Publication: Responsibility for Auto Accidents

Publication

Responsibility for Auto Accidents

A Pennsylvania man who didn’t even consider himself involved in an accident was sentenced to three years in jail as a result of his conduct.

Witnesses reported that the man drove his car out of a gas station at a high rate of speed, with spinning, smoking tires. Making a left turn as he exited the gas station, the man crossed two lanes of oncoming rush‑hour traffic to enter the highway. Two of the oncoming drivers fishtailed after suddenly braking to avoid the man’s car; their cars spun out of control and struck a car traveling in the opposite direction. One driver died as a result of the collisions. At trial, several witnesses described the chaos; all the witnesses testified to sudden and reckless driving by the defendant driver of the car that sped out of the gas station and crossed the highway.

The man appealed from his jury trial conviction for the crime commonly known as “hit‑and‑run.” More formally titled “Accidents Involving Death or Personal Injury,” the crime of hit‑and‑run occurs when any driver of any vehicle “involved” in an accident resulting in death or personal injury leaves the scene. Drivers are legally obliged to stay at the scene of such an accident, render aid if they are able, and share personal identity and insurance information. Pennsylvania law recognizes that circumstances sometimes don’t permit a driver to stop immediately at the scene, particularly on major highways. The statute requires drivers to stop “as close to” the accident scene as possible, or to “forthwith return” and remain at the scene. Only accidents involving personal injury or death prompt hit‑and‑run liability.

In the man’s appeal, he first argued that drivers should not be deemed to have been “involved” in an accident unless their vehicles actually impact another car, person, or property. The Pennsylvania Superior Court rejected his interpretation of the law, noting that the hit‑and‑run statute does not focus on the cause of the accident.

The law requires that all drivers involved in an accident involving death or personal injury stay at the scene to provide information and assistance. Whether or not a driver caused the accident is not relevant; the obligation to stay at the scene binds all drivers involved in the accident. The court refused to layer onto the law a requirement that a driver have experienced some physical impact to be “involved” in an accident, noting that doing so would leave drivers free to run others off the road, with no impact, and then claim not to have been “involved.”

The man next argued that if he was legally considered to have been involved, he was not guilty of hit‑and‑run, because he had not realized that there was any accident. The court rejected the man’s claim that he was oblivious to the accident. Noting that drivers are responsible for what they actually know and also for what they reasonably should have known, the court emphasized that the jury was apparently convinced by the witness testimony that the man knew or should have known that there had been an accident. Witnesses described a very loud collision, which “threw debris everywhere,” immediately after the man cut across the heavy oncoming traffic.

It is certainly not possible for drivers to be fully aware of the traffic events that occur in their rearview mirrors. And it is not always clear that an accident has caused personal injury. But in order to avoid criminal liability, all Pennsylvania drivers should stop at the scene of any accident in which they are involved and comply with the obligation to render aid and share information.