Duties When Involved in an Accident
A number of statutes govern the duty of drivers involved in accidents. Of course, the law prohibits a driver involved in an accident from leaving the scene, i.e., a “hit and run.” The code requires a driver involved in an accident which results in injury or death to another, or damage to a vehicle, to immediately stop at the scene or “as close thereto as possible.” In that situation, a driver must both provide information and render aid. The code section also requires a driver to remain at the scene until the these requirements are met and goes on to state that “[e]very such stop shall be made without obstructing traffic more than is necessary”. Note that, a first conviction for leaving the scene of an accident will disqualify a CMV driver for 1 year.
The statute is not limited to those whose vehicles actually make contact in an accident. Rather, the question is whether the driver is “involved.” In Bellamy v. Edwards, the Court of Appeals held that a jury was authorized to find that a defendant engaged with others in the joint enterprise of drag racing was thereby “involved” in a collision that took place as a result, despite the fact that his vehicle was not part of the actual collision. Accordingly, the trial court was held to have properly charged the jury as to the statutory duties of comply with regulation.
Bellamy v. Edwards
Significantly for those litigating a case involving one who leaves the scene, the Bellamy case also holds that leaving the scene is a factor a jury may consider as tending to prove negligence and may support the imposition of punitive damages. A breach of the statute has thus been held to constitute negligence per se, as well as evidence of negligence although not causally connected with the specific incidence of the accident. It has also been held that, where the court has given general charges on negligence and proximate cause, it is not necessary for the court to charge that a failure to render aid must proximately cause injury.
Counsel must keep in mind the strictures of the statute when dealing with a CMV. It may be impossible in many instances for such a vehicle to immediately stop at the scene of a collision without endangering oncoming traffic. The statute contemplates this, stating that a driver involved in an accident shall stop “as close thereto as possible” and further that “such stop shall be made without obstructing traffic more than is necessary.” The Court of Appeals has held that the requirement one stop “without obstructing traffic” is too vague to constitute negligence per se, but may nevertheless form a basis for negligence in fact. Thus, a CMV which stops and blocks the road because it scraped the fender of another vehicle may cause a collision and be found liable even though no hit and run is involved.
Conversely, a CMV driver may reasonably decide to proceed some distance from the accident before returning and stopping without running afoul of the “hit and run” prohibition. It is not unheard of for a CMV driver to decide the next safe place is the next exit off the interstate. Make certain the circumstances of the CMV driver’s stop are understood before pursuing a claim; it may backfire if the driver can convince the jury that he simply did not want to cause another accident. This may have particular resonance where a “no contact” lane-change accident has occurred.
The Code also creates a duty to get vehicles off the road following an accident. Specifically, this code provides that drivers in accidents with “no apparent serious injury or death” must “remove said vehicles from the immediate confines of the roadway into a safe refuge on the shoulder, emergency lane, or median or to a place where otherwise removed from the roadway whenever such moving of a vehicle can be done safely and the vehicle is capable of being normally and safely driven, does not require towing, and can be operated under its own power in its customary manner without further damage or hazard to itself, to the traffic elements, or to the roadway.”
One moving a vehicle under this section before the police arrive “shall not be considered liable or at fault … solely by reason of moving the vehicle” as required. This rule must be kept in mind when alleging a motorist left the scene in violation of regulation. It is also arguably a codification of a duty to prevent an act of negligence from causing further damage after the initial harm occurs. Note that under this analysis, one not at fault in the initial accident may breach the duty to remove the vehicle, giving rise to far more harm than the original accident.