When an Insurer Totals Your Car
What is "Totaling," and why is it bad?
If you look at your auto insurance contract, you'll notice a provision that if your car is damaged in an accident, your insurer doesn't have to pay you more than your auto is worth. If it would cost more to fix the car than a certain percentage of the car's value, your insurer will consider your car a total loss, i.e., "total" it. All you'll be able to get is a check for the value of the car. This is bad, because it usually won't be enough to replace your car, and it won't be enough to fix it. Plus, if you get back your car and use the money to fix it, insurers may refuse to provide more than basic liability coverage on it.
How do insurers decide what a car is worth?
Insurers keep proprietary databases on car prices, similar to the Blue Book or the National Auto Dealers Association (NADA) Official Used Car Guide. The insurer's valuation of your car is mostly based on its age. So, your car might be totaled if it's thirteen years old and receives only minor damage, and it might not be if it's a brand new Porsche that has been in a devastating collision.
What can I do if I disagree with the insurer's valuation?
Valuation problems arise in two ways. The most common problem is that the insurer's valuation isn't anywhere near enough to actually buy an equivalent car in the marketplace. For example, if a driver's six-year-old Mazda Protege is totaled, the driver will understandably want enough money to buy another six-year-old Mazda Protege with comparable options. The less common scenario is where an older, more valuable car has been babied so that it is in mint condition and has only a small fraction of the expected mileage on the odometer. Such a car will be worth much more than the run-of-the-mill cars of its age on the road.
If you don't agree with an insurer's estimate of your car's cash value, your best bet is to pay an independent appraiser to provide an estimate. You may need to bring in more than one, so the car will have to be fairly valuable to make this process worthwhile.
What happens to a totaled car?
When a car is severely damaged, it is usually taken to a salvage yard, auctioned off, and chopped up for parts. The insurance company keeps the money it got at the auction.
If you decide you want to keep your car and repair it, you should be able to do so. Many insurers will usually return the car to you if you request it, but this may vary from carrier to carrier. Certain insurers won't return a car if it's rare or newer, and the insurer thinks it will get a substantial sum at auction. Unfortunately, this is a bad time to find out whether your insurance company is policy-holder friendly or not.
If your car is returned, the insurer will pay you the car's actual cash value, minus your deductible and, in some cases, the amount the company would have received in an auction. Then you're going to have to pay for repairs. To get back on the road, the car will have to pass a Department of Motor Vehicles inspection and insurers can refuse coverage for a totaled car beyond basic liability insurance unless the car passes. If you want complete coverage on your totaled car again, you will have to have it completely repaired.
When is the right time to get a lawyer involved?
If negotiation doesn't bring any results, you can try to resolve the matter either through arbitration or litigation. But before doing that, it may be worth asking a lawyer if he or she can help get a more favorable settlement informally.
Arbitration, which is less of a hassle and less expensive than going to court, will usually result in a decision favorable to the insurance company. Insurance companies are practiced at arbitration, and arbitrators have to deal with them all the time. Some arbitrators don't want to get the companies upset. Having an attorney at arbitration will increase your odds. However, the best bet, if you're going to try arbitration, is to see if non binding arbitration is an option. That way, you can still take the matter to court if you are not satisfied.
Going to court is rarely a cost-effective option. Unless the car was extremely valuable, and the insurance company's offer is a tiny fraction of what you believe the vehicle was worth, you may spend more in attorney fees and costs than the amount you might recover.
What can I do to protect myself when I buy car insurance?
Buying insurance from a customer-friendly company is your strongest protection against hassles after an accident happens. When shopping for insurance, ask at what percentage of the vehicle's worth a company will total a car. Some will total a car when damage exceeds 51 percent of its worth, while others will total a car when damage exceeds 80 percent of its worth. Also, ask about the company's policies for returning a totaled car. If the company won't return totaled cars, or decides whether to do so on a mysterious "case by case" basis, you may want to keep looking for a company that puts a higher priority on its customers' needs.
Disclaimer: This site and any information contained herein is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered legal advice. Seek the help of competent legal counsel for advice on any legal matter.
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