Let me begin this post with a disclaimer. I am a Maryland accident lawyer who handles serious injury cases only. My law firm does not handle property damage or minor injury claims. But, without a doubt, property damage claims are vexing for the vast majority of people who are involved in a car accident. So let me give you my thoughts on property damage cases. You can also find more information along with my law firm’s thoughts on property damage claims on our website.
It is easy to forget from where I am sitting, but the average auto accident claim does not involve injuries. Without an injury, it is hard, (read: virtually) impossible to get a lawyer to handle your claim. So most property damage accident victims will end up handling their own property damage claims rather than getting the assistance of an attorney. Without an attorney, consumers are behind the 8 ball if the insurance company does not play it straight and tries to take advantage of the fact that the claimant does not understand the law and their rights when making a property damage claim from a car accident.
Rental cars are one of the biggest battlefields in property damage claims. It seems that 25% of the insurance adjusters out there don’t really understand the law. It always seems like it is a fight, even when it is incredibly clear that you were not at fault for the car accident. You know it wasn’t your fault, the police report states it wasn’t your fault, but the other party’s insurance refuses to accept liability for the accident; therefore, they will not grant your requests for a rental car. Sound familiar? The reason this occurs is because the insurance adjuster is instructed to fully investigate all accidents prior to actually paying out for any costs of recovery. From where they are sitting, worse comes to worst, they have to pay out a claim if someone rents a car. So the only way a consumer can get around this is by getting a rental car through their own insurance policy and hoping the other party’s insurance reimburses those costs after their “investigation” has been completed. If you don’t have rental insurance, and a lot of us do not, you are stuck with having to front the money for a rental car with no certainty you will be paid back without actually filing a lawsuit.
In the event you are provided a rental car, you will be able to use that car as long as your car is under repair. When your car is no longer in need of repair, rental car charges will no longer be reimbursed. The insurance company is usually on the right side of this argument. If your car is fixed, or they have paid out a total loss, you have to return the car. This is a pretty bright-line rule.
The other battle is over the “similar car” problem. Victims in property damage claims should get a car that is of equal size and structure of the one that is under repair or totaled. If you are driving a Lexus, I would not take this too literally. But if you are used to driving a minivan, then your insurer needs to reimburse or provide a rental car that is similar. This is especially true for individuals that use their vehicles for work or company purposes.
Vehicle Repair or Pay Off
Another common source of contention in property damage claims is the pay-off of the victim’s current car loan. In the event a vehicle is damaged beyond repair, insurance companies are only inclined to pay the fair market value of the vehicle. The fact that the value to you is more than the value of the car, doesn’t factor into the calculation, at all. What factors into the value are special reasons why your car is worth more than other cars similarly situated, i.e., you put on fancy rims. But to get an insurance company to pay for that, you will spend more time and money getting the case to trial then the difference in the value (at least in most cases).
For some consumers with a loan, the payoff of their property damage total loss claim is less than the pay-off amount. If you have gap insurance, no problem. If you don’t have gap insurance, the victim can find themselves in the hole on the car. This is one of those “it is not really fair but it is the law” type situations that drives victims absolutely crazy.
In the event the car is repairable, the insurance company is only liable for the charges required in order to repair the vehicle to pre-accident condition or what they consider a “reasonable” repair cost. Though you do not have to use the body shop, the insurance company recommends, it is usually easier to use these recommended companies since they deal directly with your insurer and you will not have to be the middleman.
Another common concern accident victims have. Insurance adjusters in Maryland take a hard line on storage fees even when they accept liability. The car can’t sit in storage for an extended period. You have to get the repairs done or have the car moved somewhere else. You cannot let the car sit in storage while the at-fault driver’s insurance company is determining liability. This understandably frustrates people who really are the victims in a car accident. But it is what it is.
If the at-fault driver’s insurance company has not yet accepted liability and you let your own insurance company fix the car, you, the victim, are often liable to pay your deductible until it can be reimbursed. That means that your own insurer will get that deductible back to you once the at-fault insurance company finally steps up and assumes responsibility (or is forced to take responsibility at trial). The most typical way the at-fault insurance company is ‘forced” to take responsibility in property damage claims is through inter-insurance company arbitration. If the two insurance companies disagree about fault, they usually decide to arbitrate the case. If your insurance company wins, they get paid back for the damage and send you a check for your deductible.
Property Damage Claims at Trial
If you will take your own property damage claim to court without an attorney, you need to be prepared. There are a lot of local regulations and procedural rules that have to be followed when filing a claim in Maryland for more than $5,000. I can’t explain them in a blog post. You can start here by reading the section on CJP § 10-105 in the middle of the article. But it is tough not to screw these up on your own. I wish I had a better answer for you. I think the best thing to do is to keep calling Maryland accident lawyers until you can convince one that you have a case worth taking. Honestly, again, I will not be that lawyer unless you have a significant injury claim too. I am sorry. The whole thing is unfair.
In the end, property damage claims are tricky and there are not a gazillion accident lawyers lined up to help you if you are not hurt. Insurance companies have the advantage over you. My best advice: do your research, try to do the best you can and if you become completely stuck, try to convince a lawyer that you have a claim worth pursuing. Be prepared to make more than one phone call. And good luck.