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Property Damage: My car is broken. Please fix it.

This is part of a series about the types of damages people suffer as a result of automobile collisions. Check out the Damages Category for information about Medical Expenses, Lost Wages, and Pain and Suffering. This post will cover damage to your personal property, especially your car.

The first casualty of any automobile collision is your car. For many of us our car is our primary means of transportation and not having a functioning car means you cannot go to work or care for your family. Loss of our car is not just the loss of a machine, it is the loss of our freedom. If your vehicle has been damaged because of someone's negligence consider calling an attorney for a free consultation.

For the sake of keeping this post short I will assume that there is sufficient property damage insurance coverage available to you and that you own your car outright (no car loan).

Loss of your car can mean the loss of your ability to work and care for your family.

Loss of your car can mean the loss of your ability to work and care for your family.

What, exactly, is property damage?

Property damage is harm caused to, or directly stemming from, damage to your personal property. In an automobile collision the most common type of property damage is damage to your car. Property damage also extends to loss of use. For example, if you have to rent a car while your car is being repaired the cost of the rental car would be a type of property damage.

Can my car be fixed?

The first issue that arises is if the car can be repaired or not. Sometimes the cost to repair the car is greater than the value of the car itself. If the cost to repair the car is greater than the value of the car then the vehicle will be declared a total loss, or “totaled.” If the car is totaled it will not be repaired, instead the car will be scrapped and you should receive the full value of the vehicle. For example:

Adam’s car is worth $10,000. The cost to repair his car is $12,000. Adam’s car will be totaled because the cost to repair is greater than the car’s value. Adam should receive $10,000.

Beth’s car is worth $10,000. The cost to repair her car is $5,000. Beth’s car will be repaired because the cost to repair is less than the car’s value.

How much is my car worth?

If your vehicle is totaled the law in Georgia says you are entitled to the fair market value of your vehicle. Economists can debate the definition of fair market value for hours, but I’m going to tell you the easiest way to understand what fair market value is, “What could you have sold your car for before it was wrecked?”

There is no single, definitive method for determining fair market value. The most common way, however, is to look at what similar cars have sold for in your community. This is called “pulling comps.” I always ask the insurance company to send me the comps they use to determine value. But even comps are not perfect. Here are some issues that can arise:

  • How close are the comps to your car? Does it matter that your car was an '04 and the comp was an '05?

  • Was your car in excellent condition? If so, do you have maintenance records to prove it?

  • Did you recently spend money for a major repair on your vehicle? How much credit should you receive for the repair?

  • Do you have custom or unusual features that you added to your car? How much are they worth?

  • Should the comps be averaged? Should the middle number be taken, the highest, the lowest? How many comps should be pulled?

  • What qualifies as “in your community?” 10 miles, 20 miles, 50 miles? Does it matter if you live in metro Atlanta or in rural Georgia?

Where do I get my car repaired?

In Georgia you are allowed to get your car repaired at the facility of your choice. If you have a mechanic you have worked with in the past and who you trust he is probably the best person to call about getting your car repaired. If your car is newer you can also call the dealer and ask them about repairs.

Most mechanics who do collision repair will, with your permission, handle the property damage claim. The mechanic will assess the damage, provide estimates for the repairs, and agree on a price for parts and labor with the insurance company. The insurance company will pay the mechanic directly, all you have to do is pick up your car.  

Some insurance companies will ask you to go to one of their own repair facilities to have your car repaired. I generally advise against this. A mechanic with his own shop or a dealership has a customer base and a reputation to protect. They want to provide a good repair at a good price. The insurance company, on the other hand, is trying to spend as little money as possible on the repair. They want to do a minimal job for the absolute lowest price.   

I know they said my car was totaled, but I bet I can fix it!

Sometimes clients tell me they want their car back despite the damage. They think they can fix the car or tell me they know a guy who can fix it for half of what the insurance company says it will cost. This is usually a bad idea.

In short, a vehicle that has been totaled out cannot be driven on public roads until it is repaired to safe operating condition and passes a safety inspection. The cost to repair the vehicle is usually greater than the value of the car. Additionally, a vehicle that has had to be reinspected, called a salvage vehicle, is worth much less and may be difficult to insure.

What about diminished value?

A car that has been wrecked and repaired is worth less than a car that has never been in a wreck to begin with. You, the owner of the car, will get less for your car when you sell it or trade it in because it was wrecked and repaired. To compensate you for this loss the insurance company should pay you, on top of the cost of repairs, a diminished value payment.

Like fair market value there is no set formula to compute diminished value. Generally the newer and more valuable a car is the higher the diminished value claim, the older and cheaper a car is the lower the diminished value claim. But it is always something, no matter how old and how cheap your car is. I’ve never had an adjuster volunteer a diminished value payment. Make sure you ask about it, because if you don’t ask they won’t offer.

Do I need a lawyer for my property damage claim?

Here’s an answer that will surprise you. You might not need a lawyer for your property damage claim. Remember, I am assuming for the purpose of this post that there is sufficient insurance available to you.

If you have your own collision coverage and you file a claim with your own insurance company you probably do not need an attorney. If you do not have your own collision insurance and want to file a claim with the responsible party’s insurance company you may need an attorney. Not using an attorney for your property damage claim will save you money on attorney fees but it may cost you in total recovery. Having an attorney handle your claim will also save you a substantial amount of stress and worry.

Here’s another neat thing you can do. Georgia allows the property damage claim to be separated from your other claims (injuries to your body, lost wages, pain and suffering, etc.). So you could file a claim with your own insurance company and not use an attorney, saving you the fees, and then retain an attorney for the rest of your claim against the negligent party. I would say half of my clients do this exact thing.

A few things you might be wondering about.

If you have a lien on your car or otherwise owe money on your car the situation gets more complicated. You may be obligated to repair the car and if the car is totaled the lien holder is typically paid first. If you are leasing the car what happens will depend in part on what your lease agreement says.   

The loss of your car is more than the loss of a machine. For many people it is the loss of freedom, the loss of the ability to work, and the loss of the means to interact with your community. If you or your car have been damaged in an automobile wreck consider a free consultation with an Atlanta attorney. 

DamagesRobert Cairns