Hit-And-Run Drivers Should Be Punished In Civil Cases

Hit-And-Run Drivers Should Be Punished In Civil Cases

At the end of September, Julio Vivo left for a Sunday morning bike with a friend in Pasco County. Vivo, by all accounts a dedicated cyclist, took a familiar route toward the challenging hills around San Antonio.

Vivo never made it to the hills. He was struck by a red SUV on Bellamy Brothers Boulevard, thrown onto its hood, and then into a gutter. The SUV fled the scene and left Vivo to die.

Vivo was critically injured and went to Tampa General Hospital, where he remains today. He has no memory of the accident. His injuries are so serious that there's no telling whether he'll ever be able to ride his bike again.

This story received a lot of attention in the local press. Local cyclists kept the story alive on social media, urging people to be on the lookout for the red SUV which caused the collision. Last week, police got a huge break when they apparently found that vehicle. Police did not release details about how and where they found it, but they released photos showing a 2010 Jeep Liberty with damage to the hood. There's been no word from police since then about whether the driver was also found.

Vivo's scenario, while certainly horrifying, is much more common than people realize. We have handled numerous hit-and-run cases in our office over the years. Not all involve pedestrians; people in their cars are victimized by hit-and-run drivers too. People flee for many reasons, but some of the most common are: (1) not wanting to be found intoxicated after causing an accident, (2) not having insurance or a valid license, (3) a complete lack of concern for others and an unwillingness to accept responsibility, and (4) simple panic.

Unfortunately, many hit-and-run cases are never solved. When they are, it's usually because a neighbor, co-worker, or someone else notices a pattern of damage to a car or truck that matches something they heard about through the media.

In Vivo's case, for example, the damage to the Jeep can be seen on the hood, in the same spot where a fellow cyclist saw Vivo get thrown right after the impact. Unfortunately, in cases which aren't publicized, the odds of someone making such a connection are much lower.

We've always felt a driver who flees the scene of an accident should face punitive damages for doing so. It is a crime, of course, and it is one of the most reprehensible things a driver can do. Unfortunately, many courts have taken an excessively legalistic and narrow view of these cases. They've concluded that fleeing the scene support punitive damages because it is the impact, not the fleeing afterward, which "causes" a person's damages.

This argument ignores reality. In many cases, fleeing does cause damages, because the injured person may die or have their medical care delayed before someone else realizes what happened. In other cases, people flee because they are intoxicated - which is itself a crime and can give rise to punitive damages.

Most of all, however, fleeing is simply an unacceptable way to try and avoid responsibility. Punitive damages are generally supposed to punish and deter socially unacceptable behavior, and fleeing is as unacceptable as it gets. A driver who leaves the scene of an accident should not be able to get a pass for their repulsive behavior by arguing they didn't cause harm by running away.

It's time for the law to catch up with the reality of what happens on our roads. Vivo's case shows how inadequate a "compensatory "damages remedy is against a fleeing driver. Claims for punitive damages should be allowed in all cases where this rotten behavior occurs.

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