Personal Property Damage Claims: How to Get Compensated for Belongings

Get fair compensation for damaged personal property, like phones, jewelry, and home furnishings. Find out who should pay and what you can do about it.

In legal and insurance terms, “personal property” describes just about any of your belongings that aren’t nailed down.

Your personal property might include clothing, eyeglasses, electronics, your movable home furnishings, decorative items, and even your pet.

Personal property that is damaged while in your home may be covered by homeowner’s insurance or a renter’s policy. Some policies will also cover personal property lost or damaged away from the home.

When someone else negligently or intentionally damages your belongings, you have the right to demand compensation for your losses. You also have the right to pursue compensation for bodily injuries you’ve suffered.

Property Damage Claims Under Your Policy

The typical homeowner’s insurance policy covers loss or damage to the interior and exterior of your home and personal property such as:

  • Computers, TVs and other electronics
  • Jewelry
  • Clothing
  • Appliances
  • Furniture
  • Decorative items like curtains, artwork, and lamps
  • Other personal property

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.

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

Insurance Coverage and Exclusions

In insurance lingo, an “occurrence” is the circumstance that leads to your property damage. Occurrences that won’t be covered are called “exclusions.”

You can expect to be paid for property damage resulting from “covered occurrences.”

Common Insurance Exclusions

Homeowner’s and renter’s insurance typically excludes coverage for property damage or losses caused by:

  • Flooding
  • Power failure
  • Wear and tear
  • Neglect
  • Acts of war
  • Poor maintenance
  • Government seizure
  • Intentional loss

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.

Covered Occurrences or Perils

Take the time to read through your homeowner’s or renters 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 lightning
  • Windstorm or hail
  • Explosion
  • Riot or civil disturbance
  • Damage caused by aircraft
  • Damage caused by vehicles
  • Smoke
  • Vandalism
  • Theft
  • Volcanic eruption
  • Falling objects
  • 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.

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.

Paying Deductibles

An easy way to lower the cost of insurance premiums is to opt for a higher “deductible.” The deductible is the amount of money you’re responsible for paying before your insurance kicks in.

The smaller your monthly premium payment, the higher your deductible usually is.

Before filing a claim, be sure you can prove the value of your damaged property is more than the deductible. Deductibles can range from $50 to $2,500 and more.

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.

Personal Property Damage Away from Home

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

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

Here’s what you need to know about Car Accident Property Damage Claims.

A personal injury can happen at the same time as property damage.

When someone else is responsible for the circumstances 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.

The same liability theory applies to negligent acts even when no one gets hurt.

For instance, when negligence ends up causing someone to slip and fall, under most circumstances, the negligent person or business is responsible for the replacement costs of damaged personal property, with or without an injury.

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.

Alice wasn’t hurt, but the face of her smartwatch was completely shattered in the fall.

The spilled coffee should have been cleaned up moments after it happened, not left there for an hour. In this case, the store owner is liable for the replacement cost of the damaged watch.

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.

Dealing with the Insurance Company

No matter if it’s your insurance company or the at-fault party’s insurance, you won’t see a dime until you can prove:

  1. The circumstances of the loss are a covered occurrence
  2. You lost personal property in the occurrence
  3. You could not have prevented the loss
  4. The value of the damaged or stolen property

When you file a property damage claim, be ready 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

Preserving the Evidence

Your insurance company requires evidence proving your property damage claim. The more evidence you have, the stronger your claim, and the harder it is for the insurance company to deny payment.

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.

Photos and video of the scene are very important. Turn on the date and time stamp function of your digital camera or use your cell phone. Whenever possible, keep the scene as it was at or about the time of the property damage.

You want to leave no doubt in the claims adjuster’s mind your neighbor’s tree, and nothing else, directly caused your car 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.

Mitigating Your Losses

If you can stop additional property damage from happening, you must. 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.

Proving 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.

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.

If it was necessary to get immediate repairs to prevent further destruction or loss to your property, save the invoices or repair bills. Where possible, put together a list of serial numbers of stolen property.

Example: Insurance Claim for Camera

While vacationing in Florida, Tracy dropped her brand-new digital camera in the pool, and the water destroyed it. Her homeowner’s policy covers personal property that’s damaged or stolen away from home.

When Tracy got home, she dug through the junk drawer in the kitchen and found the receipt. Because her policy covers replacement costs, the receipt is all Tracy needed to get reimbursement for her ruined camera.

Understanding Replacement and Actual Cash Value

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 depreciated value as what you could have gotten for the item at a yard sale.

No matter 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.

Getting a Fair Property Damage Settlement

Insurance adjusters are notorious for paying as little as possible in property damage claims. They look for any crack in your evidence. If the adjuster can find a weakness in your claim, they’ll offer less money than your damaged property may be worth.

Beware of adjusters who act like they’re doing you a favor, or suggest if you don’t accept their offer, you may get nothing.

If you do your homework by identifying the cause, preserving the evidence, and properly substantiating the value of your damage, then stick to your guns.

If you’re not getting anywhere with the adjuster, let them know you may hire an attorney. Adjusters want to settle claims as quickly as possible. The last thing they want is to start over with your attorney.

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 come off a low-ball offer, you can file a small claims court lawsuit directly against the at-fault party.

Small claims courts are intended to help individuals settle relatively small financial disputes on their own. Property damage disputes are just the kind of case 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.

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.

You don’t have to have an attorney for small claims court. However, most attorneys don’t charge for the initial consultation. It costs nothing to find out what an attorney can do for you.

Personal Property Damage Questions & Answers

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 >>