Get fair compensation for your wrecked car and ruined personal items. Learn what your property is worth and how to file an insurance claim.
Sooner or later, you’re bound to be involved in a car accident with property damage. The average American driver can expect to be in three or four car accidents during their lifetime.¹
If you’ve been in a car accident caused by someone else, you have a right to expect the at-fault driver or their insurance company to pay for your damages.
Property damage in a motor vehicle accident is not limited to vehicle repairs. You have the right to seek compensation for the cost to repair or replace personal property that was ruined in the crash.
Personal property can be anything from your clothing and eyeglasses, to your cell phone or school books, and even groceries you had in the trunk. In many states, pets are considered personal property.
Learn how to file a successful property damage claim, and what you can do if the insurance company won’t pay.
Property Damage Claims in Car Accidents
When you’ve been in a car accident, you are entitled to seek reimbursement from the at-fault driver for damage to your vehicle, lost personal belongings, and more.
Vehicle-related property damage claims might include:
- Cost to repair your vehicle
- Fair market value of the car if it’s a total loss
- Rental car costs while your car is in the shop
- Replacement value of upgrades you made to your car, like a stereo system or special wheel rims
Claims for lost or damaged personal property might include:
- Mobile phones
- Jewelry, including smart watches
- Ruined clothing
- Sunglasses and prescription eyeglasses
You can file a claim for any property you can prove was lost in the accident. For example, if you were on your way home with a week’s worth of groceries in the trunk, save your grocery receipt to support your claim if your groceries were ruined in the accident.
Car Seats and Booster Seats: Safety experts recommend that child car seats be replaced after a moderate or severe auto accident. Be sure to demand the car seat’s replacement cost from the insurance company.
How Much is Your Property Damage Worth?
Make it easy for the insurance company to pay the full value of your lost or damaged personal property. Gather purchase receipts, or look for purchase information from your credit card or online shopping account. Demand reimbursement for the total amount of everything you lost in the accident.
Whether or not you have a purchase receipt for an item, try to provide proof of the replacement cost. You may have gotten that laptop during a holiday sale, but how much will it cost to replace it today?
If you don’t have a purchase receipt, try to find pictures of the item in your possession prior to the car accident. The adjuster will not automatically accept your list of lost items. Copies of your registration for electronic devices and software can be helpful.
Loss of Use
The value of your vehicle and personal property is not limited to the repair costs or replacement value. Loss of use is a consideration if you are suddenly without your car or cell phone for days or weeks. Factor in rental fees for a temporary vehicle, or the cost of a “burner” phone you had to buy for short-term use.
When it comes to personal property, you may attach a sentimental value to special items, like your great-grandmother’s necklace that was broken in the crash. Your distress over the loss or damage of a family heirloom can be part of the pain and suffering component of your car accident claim.
Similarly, you may be able to make an emotional distress claim for the anguish you suffer over the loss or injury of a cherished pet. Most states categorize pets as personal property. At the very least, you can seek reimbursement for veterinary bills arising from the accident.
Vehicle Compensation Based on Actual Cash Value (ACV)
Every car has value. That value is set by the Kelley Blue Book, or a company called CCC Casualty Solutions. Around 80 percent of claims adjusters use CCC’s valuation program to calculate Actual Cash Value. The book value helps the adjuster decide whether to authorize repairs or consider the vehicle a total loss.
The book value of your vehicle depends on the age, pre-existing damage, mileage, and even your home location. For example, in rural locations, pick-up trucks tend to hold a higher value than in more urban areas.
When the estimated cost of repairs are more than the value of your car, the insurance company doesn’t have to pay for the repairs. Instead, they will “total” your car and write you a check for the book value.
You can decide to keep a car that’s been declared a total loss. However, the insurance company will probably deduct the salvage value from your payout, since it would have offset their loss. They may also notify your state’s DMV that the car was totaled.
The value of your car does not depend on the amount you might still owe on a car loan. If your vehicle is “totaled” for an amount less than your loan balance, the bank will still expect you to make your car payments.
Diminished Vehicle Value
If you’ve ever shopped for a used car, you know that a vehicle with a collision history is worth less than a similar one that was never wrecked.
The difference between the pre-accident value of a car, and the market value after repairs is the diminished value. A vehicle with significant collision damage will always be worth less, even after repairs.
Diminished value is a hot legal topic with car accident attorneys. Insurance companies don’t like to compensate claimants for diminished value, and an adjuster likely won’t include diminished value in their settlement offer.
It will be up to you, or your attorney, to push the issue. It’s also on you to prove your car is worth less than it was before the accident, even after repairs.
Case Example: Diminished Value is Valid Loss Claim
The Mabry case was a Georgia class-action lawsuit (involving more than 25,000 insurance claims) against State Farm Auto Insurance Company for breach of contract.
The class of policyholders alleged that State Farm failed to pay part of the covered losses they sustained. They alleged that State Farm did not tell them about or pay the diminished value of their vehicles.
The court decided in favor of the class. State Farm appealed. The appeals case went before the Supreme Court of Georgia, which also found in favor of the policyholders.
The appellate court ruling states, in part:
“[T]he insurance policy, drafted by the insurer, promises to pay for the insured’s loss; what is lost when physical damage occurs is both utility and value; therefore, the insurer’s obligation to pay for the loss includes paying for any lost value…”
Since the Mabry case in 2001, many more states allow diminished value insurance claims to be made against the at-fault driver’s carrier. Each state has unique laws and different formulas for calculating diminished value.
If your vehicle was repaired after sustaining significant damage, it might be worth your time to seek legal advice through a free consultation with a local car accident attorney.
How to File a Car Accident Property Damage Claim
Most property damage claims end up being paid by auto insurance coverage.
Your no-fault insurance won’t cover car repairs. You may use your collision coverage, subject to a deductible, or make a claim directly against the at-fault driver’s property damage liability coverage.
You generally won’t have to get estimates for vehicle damage. The insurance adjuster will inspect your car, or have the car evaluated by a vehicle repair facility that already has a business arrangement with the insurance company.
1. Notify Your Insurance Company
When the other driver accepts blame at the scene, you might not feel the need to notify your own insurance company, especially for minor fender-benders. This is a bad move.
Call your insurance company. Not only will you be protecting your financial interest, but your policy requires you to tell the company about every car accident.
Notification Clause: Nearly every auto insurance policy contains a “notification clause.” The clause means you agreed to tell the insurance company about any accident and to cooperate with the company’s investigation of the accident.
The notification clause reads something like this:
“Insured (you) agrees to notify the insurer (your insurance company) of any accidents and thereafter comply with all information, assistance, and cooperation which the insurer reasonably requests, and agrees that in the event of a claim the insurer and the insured will do nothing that shall prejudice the insurer’s position…”
Duty to Defend: The insurance company must hire an attorney to defend you if someone from the other car files a lawsuit against you. You could lose that protection if you don’t notify the insurance company immediately after an accident.
Fraud Protection: Don’t rely on what the other driver says at the scene. Fake injury claims are filed every day after minor collisions. Your insurance company would be in a bad position if you hadn’t already told them about the accident.
Convenience: If you have collision coverage, you might prefer having your own insurance company handle your claim for vehicle repairs and car rental. In turn, your insurance company will seek reimbursement from the other driver’s carrier. If you paid a deductible, they can often get that back for you, too.
No Insurance: If the at-fault driver had no valid insurance, your uninsured motorist coverage might cover property damage claims. Many states require uninsured coverage for injuries, with optional coverage available for uninsured property damage.
2. Notify the At-fault Driver’s Insurance Company
You will likely file a property damage claim with the other driver’s insurance company. When you call, be sure to get your claim number for future reference. If you’ve also filed a personal injury claim, there may be two different claim numbers.
A vehicle damage claim can normally be handled with a few telephone calls and emails with a claims adjuster. Other than emailing some repair estimates with the auto body shop, your claim can be handled over the phone.
As soon as you file a claim with the other driver’s car insurance, the claims adjuster’s job begins. The adjuster will coordinate with you and the auto repair shop. In most cases, you won’t have to wait more than a few days while your car is being repaired.
Demand a Rental Car
You have a right to a rental while your car is undrivable. Most insurance companies have relationships with car rental agencies and can tell you where to pick up your rental.
Alternately, you have the right to demand a similar amount of compensation for “loss of use” until you get your car back.
Request Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) Parts
When your car is damaged, you have a right to have it brought back to the condition it was in before the accident. When your car is repaired with OEM parts, it means they are the same as the parts that originally came with your vehicle.
Insurance companies want to pay as little as possible for auto claims. If you don’t insist on OEM parts, the claims adjuster may only authorize “After-Market” parts. After-market parts are less expensive, easier to get, and may not be the same quality as OEM parts.
These days, after-market parts can be as good as OEM, but not always. OEM parts are usually under warranty and should be as good as the original part.
5 Steps After an Accident to Build Your Claim
Imagine you’re driving in your car, minding your own business when the next thing you know, you’re reeling from the impact of a crash. Even minor accidents can be disorienting and stressful. Here’s what to do after the accident to build a strong insurance claim.
1. Call the police
After checking for injuries, call 911 to report the accident and ask for assistance. Depending on where you live, police officers may only be dispatched to the scene if someone is injured, traffic is disrupted, or conditions are dangerous to others.
Call the police regardless of the circumstances. A police report is important evidence of the other driver’s fault, especially if they were ticketed.
The investigating officer will speak with you, the other driver, and any witnesses. They will investigate the scene and may take photographs. Traffic citations may be issued to the at-fault driver.
2. Collect critical information
Most state car accident laws require drivers to stay on the scene, check for injuries, and exchange information with the other drivers.
While you’re at the accident scene, write down the information you’ll need during the claims process, including:
- The other driver’s contact information
- Vehicle make, model, and license number
- The name, policy number, and telephone number of the other driver’s insurance company
- Admissions made by the other driver, such as, “It was my fault,” or “I didn’t see you.“
3. Take photographs and video
Take photos and video of the accident scene from as many angles as safely possible. Try to get pictures of:
- Damage to both vehicles
- The immediate area around the accident, including skid marks
- Broken glass and any other broken parts that fell off the cars
- The position of the cars
- Any special wheels or accessories on your car
- Damaged or destroyed personal property
As soon as possible after the crash, while your memory is fresh, begin to gather other forms of important evidence to support your claim.
4. Gather and list damaged property
Preserve any damaged clothing, electronics, jewelry, etc. Take pictures of the damaged items and try to locate pictures of the items from before the crash. Gather your purchase receipts for the items or find other documentation of each item’s replacement value.
5. Create an accident claim diary
Make a chronological list of all that goes on during the claims process. Your diary keeps important information at your fingertips. Take notes and document events as they occur, with dates, times, and details.
Write down important facts and events, such as:
- The date and time of the accident
- Weather conditions at the time of the crash
- The police officers’ names and police report number
- Names and phone numbers of witnesses
- The other driver’s insurance information
- Summaries of discussions you have with the claims adjuster
The more organized your claim file and notes are, the better your chance of maximizing your property damage compensation.
Taking a Property Damage Claim to Court
Most property damage claims are settled reasonably quickly for a fair amount of money. If the at-fault party’s insurance company denies your claim or the at-fault driver doesn’t have insurance, talk with your insurance carrier.
If you don’t have collision coverage or uninsured property damage coverage, you’re on your own.
Many property damage claims will be within your state’s monetary limits for small claims court. You must file a small claims lawsuit directly against the other driver, not their insurance company. However, if the other driver is insured, their company may have a “duty to defend” their insured by sending a lawyer.
You don’t need an attorney for small claims court. These courts are meant to help people settle disputes on their own, without legal help.
Still, you have nothing to lose by consulting an attorney before deciding to represent yourself in court. Most car accident attorneys don’t charge for an initial consultation.
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