Auto Damage: Is the Juice Worth the Squeeze?

Half a lawyer’s job is telling people things they don’t want to hear. For example, most calls I take concerning automobile damage terminate with the complaint that “you’re telling me I’m basically screwed.” Keep reading to find out why I’m usually thinking “yes.” 

If the cost of repairing a vehicle is less than its fair market value, then the owner is entitled to the cost of repair and related expenses, and to compensation for any depreciation in value. If the cost of repair is greater than the vehicle’s value (i.e. it’s totalled), then the owner is entitled to receive its fair market value. This has been the rule in Virginia since the 1977 case Averett v. Shircliff, 237 S.E.2d 92 (1977).

Whether the damage is total or partial, the fair market value of any vehicle is presumptively that fixed by “vehicle valuation services” such as the Kelley Blue Book: 

§ 8.01-419.1. Motor vehicle value.

Whenever in any case not otherwise specifically provided for the value of an automobile is in issue, either civilly or criminally, the tabulated retail values set forth in the National Automobile Dealers’ Association (NADA) “yellow” or “black” books or any vehicle valuation service regularly used and recognized in the automobile industry that is in effect on the relevant date, shall be admissible as evidence of fair market value on the relevant date.

The determination of value shall be subject to such other creditable evidence as any party may offer to demonstrate that the value as set forth in the NADA publication or any vehicle valuation service utilized by another party fails to reflect the actual condition of the vehicle and that therefore the value may be greater or less than that shown by the NADA publication or any vehicle valuation service.

The upshot of this is that it doesn’t matter how much you paid for the car, how much labor or expense you put into modifying or repairing it, or how much sentimental value it has to you—the NADA value is probably all the money you’ll extract from an insurance company. If you want to contest that value, you will need to pay an appraiser to testify in court, to say nothing of attorney fees. Most attorneys, even in a small market like Roanoke, will charge an hourly rate of between $200 and $400 to handle such cases. 

Perhaps perversely, it’s the smallest cases that best justify hiring a lawyer, since Va. Code § 8.01-66.1 provides that an insurance company’s unreasonable denial of a small claim allows double damages and an award of attorney fees: 

Remedy for arbitrary refusal of motor vehicle insurance claim.

Whenever any insurance company licensed in this Commonwealth to write insurance as defined in § 38.2-124 denies, refuses or fails to pay to its insured [or to a third-party claimant] a claim of $3,500 or less…and it is subsequently found by the judge of a court of proper jurisdiction that such denial, refusal or failure to pay was not made in good faith, the company shall be liable…in an amount double the amount otherwise due and payable…together with reasonable attorney’s fees and expenses.

If you are considering litigating auto damage, you have to take your mind off the cosmic injustice of the situation, and ask yourself if the juice is worth the squeeze.

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