A crash course in the right and wrong ways to have an accident in Westport
Updated 6:16 am, Saturday, August 8, 2015
“Every man is guilty of all the good he did not do.” — Voltaire
This is a tale of two accidents or, more accurately, of the behavior of the people responsible for two accidents.
I was not directly involved in either accident and, luckily, no one was hurt in either instance. However, both accidents involved my cars and occurred within 24 hours of each other, and the two accident scenes were in Westport, only a half mile apart. And though nobody who has two family cars dented within a day is happy about it, I came away with very different impressions of the people responsible. So, today’s column is not intended to make you chuckle. It’s intended to make you think.
Accident No. 1: On a recent Thursday at about noon, my 18-year-old daughter was driving in the right lane of Post Road East in one of our family cars. As she approached a light, a woman (let’s call her “Jane Doe”) driving in the left lane crossed into the right lane, hitting the left side of my daughter’s car. Immediately after this minor collision, both Jane Doe and my daughter pulled into an adjacent parking lot, where my daughter called me. Because I was so close, I was at the scene in a couple of minutes, and this is what I saw and heard:
Jane Doe had gotten out of her car and had already called Westport police. I could see she was upset at her mistake and a little embarrassed, but she offered that the accident had been completely her fault and apologized to my daughter and me. She asked several times if my daughter and her passenger were OK. She had all of her papers in order, and exchanged information with my daughter as she waited patiently for the police to arrive. When they did, she gave her statement and information to the officers and then, before we all left, she apologized again for her mistake.
After I got home, I called Jane Doe’s insurance company, only to find out she had already called, opened a file, explained to them that she was at fault, and told them to expect a call from me. Her insurance company then told me that all would be taken care of, and not to worry.
Accident No. 2: The next day about noon, I stopped into one of my favorite restaurants for lunch. I pulled into an empty spot in the restaurant’s private parking lot, with no car parked on either side of me. I had a good lunch and, after about 40 minutes, left the restaurant. When I approached my car (with no cars parked on either side of it), I saw that someone had hit my car and left a major-league dent and scrape mark of white paint all across the left rear door. The perpetrator (let’s call him “John Doe”) had not called the police or told the restaurant manager of the accident. He had not gone inside the restaurant to look for the owner of the newly dented family car, and had not even left a note on my windshield.
Now, I know this restaurant well, and its customer base is very consistent. At Friday lunch hour, the place is full of 1) financial advisors discussing portfolios with their clients; 2) ladies who lunch, often with an army of young, polished, Lilly Pulitzer or Vineyard Vines-clad kids in tow, and 3) retired couples or friends, discussing a recent European trip or their grandkids’ Ivy League schools. In other words, the place is teeming with Westport’s well-heeled and well-bred.
Thoughts: Hey, accidents happen. And if not involving personal injury, they are not the end of the world. However, as a legal matter, they are serious. As an ethical matter, maybe even more so.
The “Hit and Run” law in Connecticut is simple. Section 14-224(b)(3) of the Motor Vehicle Law is a bit wordy, but very simple in substance. In summary, it says that a person causing an accident that damages property must stop and give his name, address and operator's license number and registration number to the owner of the damaged property. If the offender can’t find the owner of the damaged property, he must report the accident to a local or state police officer or at the nearest police precinct. Failure to comply with this law is a crime, punishable by up to a year in jail. Unlike several provisions of the Motor Vehicle Law, the “Hit and Run” law applies to accidents occurring on private property (like a restaurant parking lot) as well as those on public roads.
Now the irony of a writer of newspaper columns that focus on rude driving behavior being the victim of a traffic violation involving extreme rude driving behavior on the very day his most recent column is printed in the newspaper is not lost on me. But the very different behavior of John and Jane Doe says something important about what we think about ourselves and others and, perhaps, even more about how we were raised.
In Jane Doe’s case, it’s rather simple. She did the right thing, both legally and ethically. She wasn’t happy, and I’m sure Accident No. 1 was unpleasant and expensive for her. But I hope she gets some comfort knowing that if there is a God, she got a check mark in the “Good” column for this one, and that she earned the admiration of a neighbor and his daughter for actually acting like the person we all aspire to be. She was, in this instance, an honorable person of character.
John Doe, you are a different story. I’m curious as to exactly what you were thinking after Accident No. 2. Were you in such a hurry that you would risk arrest and a criminal record by not walking 50 feet back into the restaurant to tell the host about your fender bender or to at least leave me a note? When you got home, how did you explain your dented bumper with all the gray paint on it to your significant other, your kids or your neighbors? Did you pretend to be surprised? Darned if you knew? Did you lie and make up a good story where you were the victim?
Well, I don’t believe in karma, but I do believe this: John Doe, I hope that in the future when you have those important “teaching moments” with your kids or grandkids about what’s right and wrong, about how to act in a civil society and how to live by the Golden Rule, you stumble over your words because of a mental asterisk that keeps popping up in your head reminding you of me, my car and that parking lot.
I hope that when friends and family ask you if, looking back over your life, you have any real regrets, you remember that day when, after finishing a lovely lunch at a nice restaurant in a ritzy town, you caused a hit and run accident in a parking lot. Remember always that your act of pure selfishness caused some poor schmuck time, aggravation and a $500 deductible, and could have (and should have) landed you in jail with a criminal record. I hope it nags you forever, as it should.
And so, Mr. John Doe, unlike Jane, you are just a punk (regardless of your age, zip code and financial status). And I suppose you are very proud of yourself to have gotten away with this juvenile stunt. I suppose there is nothing I can do about it ... except, perhaps, ask the police and insurance company to check the restaurant’s parking lot security video tapes and review the names on no more than three credit card receipts signed at the restaurant while I was inside eating.
Hmmm ... Maybe I do believe in karma.
Arthur Hayes is an attorney, practicing in New York City. He lives in Westport with his wife and two of his four children. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.