Sadly, damaging an unattended vehicle is a fairly common situation.
What you do after the accident, however, will determine whether the accident was criminal or merely civil in nature.
Specifically, the Virginia Code lists several “duties” that you must perform if you’re involved in an accident in the Commonwealth.
These duties still apply even if you hit a parked vehicle or another form of unattended property.
Failing to perform these duties will often result in criminal charges for “leaving the scene of an accident,” or, as it’s more commonly know, “hit and run.”
In this article, we’ll quickly outline the five basic steps you should follow if you hit an unattended vehicle in Virginia.
5 Steps to Follow After You Damage an Unattended Vehicle in Virginia
Virginia Code § 46.2-896 outlines several duties that you must perform if you damage unattended property in Virginia.
These duties generally boil down to three points:
- First, you should try to find the owner of the vehicle. If you find the owner, you can follow the (similar) steps for damaging “attended” property.
- Then, if you cannot find the owner, you should leave a note with sufficient information for the owner to contact you.
- After that, you should report the accident to the police within 24 hours.
We’ll expand on these three duties, and provide other, more practical tips and steps, in the sections below.
Step 1. Do Not Leave the Scene of the Accident
Leaving the scene of the accident can lead to criminal charges and various penalties.
Because of this, you should stop as close to the scene of the accident as possible without obstructing traffic and attempt to find the owner of the unattended vehicle.
Specifically, the Virginia Code states that you must make “a reasonable effort to find the owner or custodian of such property.”
Put another way, this is very much a “common sense” duty.
For example, if you hit a car that’s parked in front of a house, you should go and see if the car belongs to the person who lives there.
If you hit a car in the supermarket parking lot, you should stay around for a bit to see if the person returns.
You could also ask the supermarket to make an announcement in the store over the PA system.
Whatever action you choose to take, you must make a “reasonable” attempt to find the owner.
Step 2. Leave Your Information
If you are unable to locate the owner or custodian of the vehicle you hit, the next step is to leave your contact information “in a conspicuous place.”
A note on a windshield is usually sufficient for this requirement, but be aware that windy weather and rain can cause problems.
“The wind blew my note away” isn’t really a solid defense to a potential hit and run charge.
For this reason, it’s generally wise to pin your note under the person’s windshield wiper, or to place it in another conspicuous place on the car.
In most cases, you should include:
- Any relevant contact information, including your name, address, and phone number; AND
- Your driver’s license number and vehicle registration number.
Finally, remember that this note is in addition to the written report you have to file in the next step.
The note on the scene and the written report you file with the police are meant to compliment and supplement each other.
Step 3. Report the Accident to the Police
After you leave your contact information at the scene, you should report the accident, in writing and within 24 hours, to either the State Police or a local law-enforcement agency.
There are several ways for you to perform this step.
For example, you could call the non-emergency number for your local police station and ask an officer to meet you at the scene, thus satisfying this requirement (since they’ll create an accident report).
However, due to limited police resources, this may not always be an available option.
Alternatively, you could drive to the police station yourself to make a report to an officer on duty, or ask to meet an officer at the scene at some later time (such as after work) to make your official written report.
Regardless of how you make the report, you’ll have to provide certain additional information (usually at the direction of the officer you’re speaking to).
This information will include the date, time, and location of the accident and a description of the property damage.
Remember that this is in addition to the general contact information noted above.
Step 4. Try Not to Overshare
The reason you (hopefully) have an auto insurance policy is to pay for unforeseen accidents such as this.
For this reason, let your insurance company handle the problem, it’s what you pay them for.
You don’t have to leave your life story in the note or accident report mentioned above.
If you hit a parked vehicle you are assumed to be at fault.
There’s no reason to detail all of the events leading up to the accident or to admit fault in your letter or to the police officer.
Simply write down your contact information as required by law and leave it at that.
Your insurance company will figure out the rest.
Step 5. Call Your Insurance Provider
Speaking of your insurance, you should always report the accident to your insurance provider as soon as possible.
While there may be an argument for settling minor fender bender accidents such as these without involving your insurance, this isn’t really an option your insurance agent (or an attorney) would recommend due to the risk involved.
This is especially true considering that the owner of the car you hit will likely file a claim with your insurance company anyway in order to recoup their damages.
As one final point, you generally don’t need to hire a lawyer after a minor fender bender.
If you hit a parked car (as is the case here) most lawyers won’t even consider taking your case, since you would be the “at fault” party.
However, if you fail to follow the duties noted above, you must consider the fact that you’ve committed the crime of leaving the scene of an accident.
In this situation, you should strongly consider speaking with a criminal defense attorney about what you should do in your case.
If you are involved in an accident that damages an unattended vehicle, the Virginia Code mandates that you perform several specific duties.
These duties generally center on (1) notifying the other party of the accident, and (2) provide them with your contact information.
Failing to perform these actions is actually a crime in Virginia, even for minor fender benders.
Of course, contacting the police (or your insurance) to walk you through the process is also a step in the right direction.
For these reasons, it’s highly recommended that you follow the Virginia Code to the letter after a traffic accident involving unattended property.