Thousands of traffic accidents happen every year in southern California. Luckily, most vehicle accident claims do not involve physical injuries, so most people end up handling such claims without legal assistance. Even if someone with property damage wants the case handled, let’s say, by an Orange County personal injury attorney, the truth is that most car accident lawyers will not handle claims for property damages only.

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Thus, automobile insurance companies have sometimes been known to take advantage of the victim in a property damage case because they know that the victim has no legal counsel. The information presented here is intended to help traffic accident victims in California protect their rights after accidents involving rental vehicles that cause property damage but no physical injuries.

WHO IS RESPONSIBLE FOR PROPERTY DAMAGE CAUSED BY A RENTAL CAR?

Who is responsible for paying property damage when the damage was caused by a rental car? Prior to 1990, the legal doctrine of “vicarious liability” allowed courts to impose responsibility on one party (like a car rental company) for the actions of another party (like a driver), even if the first party was not negligent. Since the Graves Amendment became federal law in 1990, in most cases, car rental companies now have no liability. The law says:

“An owner of a motor vehicle that rents or leases the vehicle to a person (or an affiliate of the owner) shall not be liable under the law of any State or political subdivision thereof, by reason of being the owner of the vehicle (or an affiliate of the owner), for harm to persons or property that results or arises out of the use, operation, or possession of the vehicle during the period of the rental or lease, if (1) the owner (or an affiliate of the owner) is engaged in the trade or business of renting or leasing motor vehicles; and (2) there is no negligence or criminal wrongdoing on the part of the owner (or an affiliate of the owner).”

In other words, because Hertz or Avis did not directly cause an accident or damages, they have no financial liability. You’ll have to look directly to the driver of the rental vehicle and his or her own auto insurance company. If the accident wasn’t your fault, but the other driver’s insurance company won’t “accept liability” right away, this is usually because the company has not been able to contact the driver to obtain that driver’s version of the accident. The insurance company is obligated by contract to investigate a claim completely prior to paying the claim.

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Normally, a comprehensive investigation entails getting the driver’s version of events even in clear liability collisions. The best way to get around this and have your vehicle repaired quickly is to have damage by a rental vehicle covered under your own collision coverage policy or simply pay for the damages out of pocket and wait for your reimbursement until the insurance company accepts liability.

WHAT IF THE INSURANCE COMPANY WON’T PAY (OR WON’T PAY ENOUGH)?

Regarding vehicular damages, California and most other states entitle victims of property damage to either the amount it costs to repair the vehicle or the fair market value of the vehicle if it is a total loss. “Fair market value” is what you could probably get for the vehicle if you sold it used. Kelly’s Blue Book will tell you the fair market value of your own vehicle. If the insurance company offers you an amount that is close to the Kelly’s Blue Book figure, it’s probably a fair offer.

Unfortunately, many people still owe more on a vehicle than the vehicle is currently worth. These consumers may end up having to pay off a loan for a vehicle that has been totaled. Other people may have an older vehicle that they know is reliable but nevertheless, has a low resale value, so they may not be able to recover enough to buy a comparably reliable vehicle. If you fall into one of these two categories, you may have to accept what you’re offered and live with the loss.

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You do not have to have repairs done at the insurance company’s recommended repair shop. You can have your vehicle worked on by any certified mechanic. However, if the repairs exceed what the insurance company is offering to pay, or if additional work is required, the shop will have to obtain permission from the insurance company to ensure that they will be paid for the work. It may be easier to work with the insurance company’s approved repair shop because they routinely work through these matters with the company.

If a vehicle is totaled, the insurance company may ask you to have the title transferred to them so that they can sell it for salvage. If that happens and if you are still making payments, the bank or finance company must first release their interest in the vehicle. This means that the insurance company will need to learn how much is still owed and will have to pay that amount first. Any money remaining will be yours.

If the insurance company puts you in a rental vehicle, it should be comparable to the vehicle it replaces. This can be critical when a driver needs a particular type of vehicle for work or business. The insurance company should at least provide a rental that is suitable for the same purpose. Don’t demand the exact same vehicle, but you can insist on something that’s basically equivalent to the vehicle that was damaged or totaled.

As mentioned previously, most attorneys are not interested in cases that are exclusively about vehicle damage. If you take an insurance company to court on your own in order to recover property damages, have your own estimate of the vehicle damage, or if it is a total loss, your own numbers establishing the fair market value of the vehicle. Make sure that you are prepared with a “lost value” report, which can be obtained for a fee from a certified vehicle appraiser (who may or may not be needed to testify on your behalf).

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WHAT IF YOU SUFFER MORE THAN JUST PROPERTY DAMAGE?

Of course, if you suffer more than property damage due to another driver’s carelessness or negligence in southern California – that is, if you sustain a physical personal injury because of negligence in a traffic accident – you’ll want to discuss your legal rights and options, which may include a personal injury lawsuit, with an experienced Orange County personal injury attorney as quickly as possible after obtaining medical attention.

California drivers should know one last detail about collisions and property damage. Under the California Vehicle Code, if you damage someone’s property with a vehicle, and you don’t stop or leave a note, you’ve committed a misdemeanor that “upon conviction thereof, shall be punished by imprisonment in the county jail not exceeding six months, or by a fine not exceeding $1,000, or by both that imprisonment and fine.” This is the law whether you’re driving a rental vehicle or your own vehicle. If you still have questions regarding collisions, rental vehicles, and property damage, don’t hesitate to ask an attorney or your own auto insurance company.

By: Chris Purcell

Attorney Chris Purcell is a graduate of the University of California at Santa Barbara and the Santa Barbara College of Law. He exclusively represents the victims of personal injury and wrongful death. Chris was part of the team that won California’s largest-ever wrongful death judgment – a $150 million verdict for a family devastated by a tragic trucking accident. In 2011, he received the Top Gun Award given by the Orange County Trial Lawyers Association.