Personal Property Damage Claims: Get Compensation for Your Broken Items

Get fair compensation for damaged phones, jewelry, and home furnishings. See when and how to file a personal property damage claim.

In legal and insurance terms, “personal property” describes just about any of your personal belongings that aren’t nailed down. Your personal property might include clothing, eyeglasses, electronics, your movable home furnishings, decorative items, and even your pet.

When someone else negligently or intentionally damages your belongings, you have the right to demand compensation from them.

Personal property that is damaged by certain occurrences (like theft)  in your home may be covered by your homeowner’s policy or renter’s insurance. Some policies will also cover personal property lost or damaged away from the home.

What Counts as Personal Property Damage

The typical homeowner’s insurance policy covers loss or damage to the interior and exterior of your home, and will cover personal property damage under certain circumstances.

Renter’s insurance also covers loss or damage to your personal property, but won’t cover damage to your rental unit or appliances owned by the landlord.

Personal property items include:

  • Computers, TVs, and other electronics
  • Jewelry
  • Clothing
  • Appliances
  • Furniture
  • Decorative items like curtains, artwork, and lamps
  • Pots, pans, tools, and other belongings

You may need to purchase separate rental or homeowner’s insurance coverage for valuable collections, fine jewelry, and firearms.

Personal Property Damage Away from Home

When another party’s negligent or willful behavior damages personal property, they’re normally liable, meaning responsible for the cost of replacing the property.

After a wreck, car accident property damage claims should be paid by the at-fault driver’s auto insurance carrier.

Outside of auto accidents, most property damage claims will be paid by the negligent party’s homeowners insurance or business liability insurance.

Example: Store Responsible for Broken Watch

Alice stopped at a local convenience store on the way to work one morning. As she walked in, Alice slipped and fell on coffee that spilled on the floor about an hour before. The spilled coffee should have been cleaned up moments after it happened, not left there for an hour.

Alice wasn’t hurt, but the face of her smartwatch was completely shattered in the fall. In this case, Alice can make a claim to the store owner’s liability insurance company for the replacement cost of the damaged watch.

A personal injury can happen at the same time as property damage. When someone else is responsible for causing your injuries, you have a right to expect payment for your damaged property in addition to your injury compensation.

Example: Bar Liable for Injuries and Property Damage 

Sam was in a bar one night with friends. After another customer complained about the volume of their conversation, one of the bouncers came over and asked Sam to leave.

Sam took out his phone and asked the bouncer to let him stay until his ride got there. The bouncer angrily grabbed Sam, dragged him through the bar, and threw him violently out the door.

Sam’s body slammed to the sidewalk, breaking his arm, his prescription glasses, and shattering his cell phone.

Under liability law, the bar owner and bouncer are liable for Sam’s personal injuries and the replacement costs of his eyeglasses and phone.

Property Damage Claims and Work Accidents

Employers have a duty to keep the work environment safe for employees. Worker’s compensation insurance covers employee injuries but doesn’t cover their damaged personal property.

In most circumstances, employers are not responsible for the theft or damage to an employee’s property while working. Employees should promptly notify their employer and the police of theft.

For other types of property loss or damage, the employee might consider asking for compensation directly from the employer, whether through personal negotiations or by way of stated policies in an existing employee manual.

Insurance Coverage and Exclusions

In insurance terms, an “occurrence” or “peril” is the circumstance that leads to your property damage. The policy will outline the occurrences covered by the insurer. The policy will also list the types of occurrences excluded, meaning not covered by your insurance.

Covered Occurrences or Perils

Take the time to read through your insurance policy to see if a covered occurrence or peril caused your property damage.

Most policies will cover personal property damage resulting from:

  • Fire or smoke
  • Windstorm, lightning,  or hail
  • Explosion
  • Riot or civil disturbance
  • Damage caused by aircraft
  • Damage caused by vehicles
  • Vandalism
  • Theft
  • Volcanic eruption
  • Water leaks from plumbing and appliances
  • Frozen pipes
  • Power surges

For a successful property damage claim, you must be able to describe what happened to your property. Your insurance company needs to know the specific property that was damaged, and the covered peril that caused the loss.

Exclusions – Perils Not Covered

Occurrences or perils that won’t be covered are called policy exclusions. The insurance company won’t reimburse you for property damage caused by an excluded event.

Insurers typically exclude coverage for property damage caused by:

  • Power failure*
  • Wear and tear
  • Neglect
  • Acts of war
  • Poor maintenance
  • Government seizure
  • Intentional loss
  • Accidental damage (like dropping a smartphone)

Standard policies also exclude damage caused by floods or earthquakes.

To the adjuster, flooding includes water damage caused by backed-up storm drains, failed sump pumps, sewer back-ups, and water that seeps through the foundation of your home.

* Some policies will pay for food spoilage in your refrigerator or freezer that happens during a power outage when the power outage is caused by a covered occurrence, like a lightning strike.

Mitigating Your Losses

If you can stop additional property damage from happening, you must do it. It’s called “mitigating” (lessening) your damages.

The insurance company may not pay for additional damage that happened after the time you could have prevented it.

Example: Mitigating Water Damage

Jacob owned a furniture store in an older building. A pipe burst in the ceiling, causing water to leak down onto the furniture below.

Jacob has an obligation to prevent further damage after discovering the leak and calling a plumber. While waiting for the plumber, Jacob covered or moved the furniture out of harm’s way to prevent further damage.

Photos and video of the leaking ceiling and the damaged furniture, along with the plumber’s invoice and report, will support Jacob’s property damage claim.

4 Steps to Settling a Property Damage Claim

No matter if it’s your insurance company or the at-fault party’s insurance, do your homework by identifying the cause, preserving the evidence, and properly substantiating the value of your damage.

Before filing a claim under your own policy, be sure you can prove the value of your damaged property or that the repair estimate is more than the deductible. Paying a $1,000 deductible towards coverage for $10,000 worth of furniture lost in a fire makes economic sense.

On the other hand, that second-hand sleeper sofa you’ve had since college might not be worth enough to bother filing a claim, even with a low deductible.

1. Notify the Insurance Company of the Loss

Start the claims process by calling your insurance agent, or reach out to the at-fault party’s insurance carrier. Let them know that the circumstances of the loss are a covered occurrence and that you could not have prevented the loss.

It’s okay to say you’re still evaluating the scope of your damages. Don’t make a guess at the repair or replacement costs of your damaged property. At this stage, you’re simply putting the insurer on notice.

2. Document the Occurrence

Be prepared to verify that your property damage was caused by a covered event. The more evidence you have, the stronger your claim, and the harder it is for the insurance company to deny payment.

Photos and video of the scene are very important. Whenever possible, keep the scene as it was at the time of the property damage.

You want to leave no doubt in the claims adjuster’s mind that the covered occurrence, and nothing else, directly caused your property damage.

Save damaged property as evidence when you can. If it’s necessary to make immediate repairs in emergencies, give the claims adjuster copies of the invoices or repair bills.

Witness statements can be invaluable in proving how, when, and exactly what property was damaged by the incident.

Example: Claim for Neighbor’s Fallen Tree 

Lightning hit a neighbor’s oak tree, causing the tall tree to fall over onto Frank’s driveway, landing on top of his car. The weight of the tree dented his car’s hood and cracked the windshield.

Frank took pictures and videos of the oak tree on his car, from all angles showing the tree fell from his neighbor’s property. The neighbor immediately contacted his homeowner’s insurance company to notify them of the occurrence.

An adjuster came out the next morning, while the tree was still on the car. Frank’s property damage claim was paid in full, including the cost of removing the fallen tree.

3. Prove the Damaged Property Value

To receive reimbursement for your loss, it’s vital to have original receipts. When original receipts are unavailable, contact the store where you purchased the property and ask for copies. Get estimates for items that need repair.

You’ll need to give the adjuster:

  • A detailed description of the property
  • When you bought the item
  • How much you paid, with receipts if available
  • Pictures of the item that show its condition before the occurrence

It’s always helpful to keep photographs or video of your home’s interior to prove what kind of furnishings, appliances, and electronics you owned, in case of a fire or other devastating loss. Ideally, you’ll have digital images stored in the cloud or on a thumb drive stored safely away from home.

Example: Stolen Electronics

Cheryl comes home one evening to find someone had broken into her apartment during the day. It was easy to see the hinges had been pried off the apartment door.

After calling 911, Cheryl saw that her flat screen TV and new laptop were missing.

Theft is a covered peril under most insurance policies. A copy of the police report and receipts for her stolen possessions will help support Cheryl’s property damage claim under her renter’s policy.

4. Negotiate an Agreed Settlement

No matter what type of insurance company is handling your personal property damage claim, it’s important for you to know how they will calculate your compensation.

  • Replacement Value is what most of us think of when it comes to property damage coverage. Replacement value is what it would cost to replace the damaged item today, at today’s prices. Premiums are higher for insurance policies that pay replacement value for your property.
  • Actual Cash Value, also called “market value,” is the depreciated value of an item at the time it was lost or damaged. Think about depreciation as the “used” value you could have gotten for the item at a yard sale.

Regardless of the sentimental value of the damaged property, the adjuster will not approve repair costs for an item that exceeds the replacement or actual cash value of the item.

When you understand how the adjuster will value your claim, and you’ve provided good evidence of your claim, you should be able to come to an agreement after one or two rounds of negotiations.

Getting a Fair Property Damage Settlement

If you’re not getting anywhere with the adjuster, you may need to file a lawsuit to protect your interests.

Every state has a statute of limitations for property damage claims. That means if you haven’t settled your property damage claim or filed a lawsuit before the statutory deadline, you lose your right to seek compensation.

Most states’ statute of limitations for property damage claims is at least two years, although in Louisiana the statute of limitations only runs for one year.

The statute begins to run on the date your property was damaged, not when you file your claim. Talk to an attorney if you are worried about running out of time.

High-Dollar Personal Property Claims

Big personal property insurance claims should be handled by an attorney. When you’ve lost all your possessions in a house fire or a tornado, don’t struggle with the insurance adjuster who is challenging the value of one thing after another.

Most attorneys offer a free consultation to claimants who are unfairly treated by an insurance company. Bring a copy of your insurance policy and all your evidence of loss to the initial meeting with the lawyer.

Not only will an attorney help you recover the value of your personal items, if you’re the policyholder they can tell you if your insurer is acting in bad faith.

Taking Your Claim to Small Claims Court

If the person who caused your property damage doesn’t have insurance, or their insurance company won’t make a fair offer to settle, you can file a small claims court lawsuit directly against the at-fault party. You don’t need an attorney for small claims court.

Small claims courts are intended to help individuals settle relatively small financial disputes on their own. Property damage disputes are the kinds of cases small claims courts are designed for.

Each state has its own rules and monetary limits for small claims court. You’ll only be able to win an amount up to the limits set for your state, usually between $5,000 to $10,000.

Most states won’t let you sue for aggravation or pain and suffering. You’ll be able to recover money for measurable damages, like the replacement cost of your damaged property.

Personal Property Damage Claim Questions

Charles R. Gueli, Esq. is a personal injury attorney with over 20 years of legal experience. He’s admitted to the NY State Bar, and been named a Super Lawyer for the NY Metro area, an exclusive honor awarded to the top five percent of attorneys. Charles has worked extensively in the areas of auto accidents,... Read More >>