What should you do if you hit a parked car?

You backed out of a parking space a little too hard and slammed right into another car. Your own vehicle doesn’t have a scratch on it, but you can tell that the other car is damaged, and you don’t see the owner anywhere. What should you do?

Don’t do a hit-and-run

While it may be tempting to flee the scene and leave the other car’s owner to deal with the damage on his own, don’t do it.

By abandoning the vehicle without leaving contact information, you’ll be forcing an innocent person to pay or make a claim for an accident that you caused.

In addition to the moral issues inherent in the scenario, you also could be subject to severe penalties if a bystander sees your car or you are captured on-film by security cameras. In Pennsylvania, for instance, you might get off lightly with a fine of $300, or you could be imprisoned for up to 90 days -- or both. In some states, you might even lose your license, particularly if there already are other offenses on your driving record.

Stay at the scene

Instead of abandoning the damaged vehicle, “the driver should attempt to locate the owner of the struck vehicle to make notification,” says Brent Oberholtzer, director of public safety at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa.

If you’re at grocery store or department store, for instance, ask a cashier to announce the vehicle’s license plate number over the loudspeaker. If you’re parked outside a smaller establishment, you may be able to track down the car’s owner by yourself.

In 2009, Kevin Foley, an insurance broker in Milltown, N.J., backed into a parked car while pulling out of a spot at a local library. He found the owner inside the library, showed her the damage and called the police so that an officer could take statements. He then provided his contact details so that she could call him with an estimate of the damage. “We settled it amicably for about $400,” he says.

If you have no way to track down the owner of the damaged car, “either contact the appropriate police agency where the accident took place to assist with notification, or, at minimum, leave a contact name, number and insurance information for the victim,” Oberholtzer says.

If you leave a note, place it underneath a windshield wiper. Pay attention to the weather: If it’s windy or raining, the driver isn’t likely to see the note. In that case, calling a law enforcement official is a necessity.

Decide whether to pay out of pocket or make a claim

Because you caused the accident, you’re responsible for the cost of the damage to the car. However, you can decide whether you’d prefer to pay for the repairs out of pocket or file a claim with your insurance company.

Foley opted to pay for the $400 worth of repairs on his own. “If the damage estimate came in at more than $1,000, I might consider reporting it to my insurance company, but $400?” he says. “That’s an inconvenience, but not a disaster, so I decided to pay for it out of my own pocket.”

If you do file a claim with your car insurance company, your insurer will cover the damage. But you may be paying for it for years to come.

“Over time, a chargeable accident may cost an individual a lot of money,” says Mark Carrasquillo, an insurance broker with E.G. Bowman Co. in New York City. “You should always pay for it out of pocket if it’s nominal, because you don’t want to be surcharged.”

How much will a claim cost in the long run?

Carrasquillo estimates that filing a claim for this sort of “at fault” situation could add $300 a year in premiums for the following three years. The exception is if the accident stemmed from circumstances beyond your control, such as severe weather or an object or animal in the road that you swerved to avoid.

“Generally, though, if you hit a parked vehicle, you’ve done something wrong,” Carrasquillo says. As such, you’re a higher-risk policyholder and you’ll be charged accordingly.

If you’re not certain how much you’ll need to pay for the repair, ask the car’s owner to call you with an estimate first so that you can decide whether to file a claim or pay out of pocket. If you’re still not certain what to do after you receive the estimate, it may be worth calling your insurance agent, but only if he's an independent agent rather than someone who sells policies for just one company.

“If an agent only sells for one carrier, he’s obligated to inform the company about the incident even if you’re not filing a claim,” Carrasquillo says. “It’s an official notification that you’ve done something wrong.”

By contrast, he says, an independent agent "represents you, not the company.” Your agent can advise you on whether you should file a claim.

In many cases, the answer may be obvious. “If you’ve hit a parked Mercedes, and you know it’s going to cost $5,000 to fix it, let the insurance company pay for it,” Carrasquillo says.

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