The ‘Ignorance of Incident’ Defense in Hit-and-Run Crashes

Over our decades in practice, the Chicago Personal Injury attorneys of Zneimer & Zneimer P.C. have taken note of many unwarranted, and often peculiar defenses asserted by defendants, both in the criminal and civil setting. While our firm’s primary focus resides in providing representation to clients in civil proceedings, it is not uncommon for a civil matter to be closely connected to a criminal matter. Consider an auto accidents involving an impaired driver; nursing home abuse involving a sexual offender; or an attack by a dog that was trained or known to be vicious, to name a few.

Here, we limit our discussion to the topic of hit-and-run collisions, in which a driver flees the scene, but then later claims that they didn’t know they hit someone. The possibility that a law-abiding motorist could collide with an individual, and not be aware, seems highly improbable. Although unawareness of striking a victim is conceivable, these incidents are far and few between, and limited to exceptional circumstances. Let’s explore the ‘I didn’t know,’ or ‘ignorance of incident’ defense in regards to both criminal culpability and civil liability.

In criminal proceedings extending from a hit-and-run crash, the defendant’s assertion of ‘unawareness’ as a defense is, more often than not, an attempt to evade responsibility for their actions. Faced with the prospect of criminal conviction, morality often takes a backseat to the need for an accused to avoid prosecution or, in the alternative, limit punishment. Whether through a web search, the ‘suggestion’ of an attorney, or one’s own thought-process, hit-and-run motorists often develop the ‘ignorance of incident’ defense post-accident. Seldom does this approach, when provided as the defendant’s sole defense, result in complete evasion of criminal liability; however it has limited criminal penalties imposed in some.

Fortunately, the standard of proof in criminal trials and civil trials vary greatly from one another. In understanding this, consider where criminal defendant is found not-guilty in a vehicular manslaughter case, and the family later pursues civil damages for wrongful death. In the criminal setting, the standard is whether the defendant is guilty ‘beyond a reasonable doubt,’ however, in the civil setting, the standard is based upon the ‘preponderance of evidence.’ Hence, in civil trials, the standard is much lower, in that it only requires the plaintiff to provide evidence sufficient to show that it was ‘more probable than not’ that the defendant caused the harm complained of.

Now, let’s explore the ‘I didn’t know,’ or ‘ignorance of incident’ defense in personal injury actions involving a defendant that fled the scene of the accident. Consider the nonsensical approach of a hit-and-run motorist that asserted ‘unawareness’ as a defense, and then later tries to defend civil liability based upon contributory fault. In Illinois, a plaintiff is not barred from recovering damages, so long as they were not more than 50% at fault. However, proving that that a victim contributed to his or her own injuries or damages requires evidence. Consequently, absent witness testimony to show otherwise (the credibility of which is an issue for the jury to examine), the defendant’s ability to show that they were both unware of the collision AND that the plaintiff contributed to the accident is doubtful.

In the cases where a hit-and-run driver is located, and was insured at the time of the incident, the defendant-tortfeasor then typically becomes synonymous with the defendant-insurance company. Insurance companies have a duty to act in good faith in resolving valid claims. However, often time the defense efforts of an insurance company does little more than hinder/delay the judicial process, and in some cases, amounts to bad faith—a violation of insurance code which is compensable in and of itself.

The ‘ignorance of incident defense’ can also play a role in hit-and-run cases in which an injured victim is requesting punitive damages in addition to compensatory damages. In Illinois, obtaining an award for punitive damages requires proving that the defendant’s actions were ‘intentional’; ‘willful and wanton’; or ‘fraudulent.’ Here, the defendant may attempt to negate liability through asserting that they could not have intentionally or willfully caused harm because they were unaware of the accident (‘ignorance of incident’). Consequently, having an attorney with actual trial experience to effectively advocate on your behalf can profoundly impact the plaintiff’s ability to prove entitlement to punitive damages.

In sum, as Personal Injury Attorneys, we find the assertion of ‘ignorance of incident’ following a hit-and-run crash, is generally a defendant’s attempt to avoid criminal culpability or limit civil liability through deception, as opposed to a factual account of the incident. Regardless of this contention, it is important for victims of hit and run crashes to understand that establishing a defendant’s guilt in a criminal proceeding, is NOT a prerequisite to establishing liability and obtaining financial compensation in a civil action.

With more than three decades of experience, our Chicago Auto Accident Attorneys have attained justice on behalf of numerous victims involved in hit and run incidents, and would like to do the same for you. Contact Zneimer & Zneimer P.C. at 773-516-4100, and allow us to evaluate your case, during a no-cost/no-obligation consultation.