Personal Injury vs Property Damage Claims: What’s the Difference? 

car accident injury
Posted: August 18, 2023

 A car crash on New York roads can leave behind twisted metal, shattered glass, and bumper parts. Evidence of this property damage can linger on the road shoulder for weeks or even months. The crash might have caused life-altering injuries that will last long after roadside debris is finally swept up but, at least for a time, those remnants of property damage may be the most visible proof that the crash occurred.  

Cars are, of course, inanimate objects that can almost always be repaired or replaced. On the other hand, a permanent physical injury to a body part, while not always apparent and sometimes insidious, is just that: permanent. A herniated intervertebral disc that causes unrelenting symptoms can be removed in a surgical procedure, but the soft tissue can never truly be replaced. A displaced fracture can heal, but the time spent in a cast and immobile, unable to fully enjoy life, can never be re-lived.  

The most important concern after a New York motor vehicle collision is always the welfare of all involved. But we live in a mobile society, and many people depend on their cars to get around. Under these circumstances, it is natural to ponder: what is the relationship, if any, between property damage to a vehicle and physical injury to its driver and occupants? How long do car repairs take after an accident and can you choose where that repair will take place?  

What is a “minor fender bender”?  

It is no secret that some insurance companies treat property damage as a proxy or indicator for the severity of crash which, in turn, is a factor for how serious resulting injuries might be.  

For example, you may hear an insurance adjuster say that personal injuries are out of proportion with the crash, which was just a “minor fender bender.”  

These sorts of characterizations are troubling because the principal purpose of a car bumper is to protect the vehicle from damage, not to eliminate or mitigate the injuries of car occupants. To draw these sorts of conclusions from physical damage alone, without full consideration of what happened to the injured person’s body inside the vehicle, is problematic. 

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), in a useful Q&A about bumpers, has made clear that bumpers are not normally used as a structural component that can improve the crashworthiness of a vehicle or provide for occupant protection in the event of a crash. To the contrary, bumpers are generally designed to protect certain parts of the vehicle itself—such as the hood, trunk, grille, and various systems—in the event of a low-speed crash.  

Indeed, it is possible that someone who occupies a vehicle involved in a so-called “fender bender”–with little visible property damage and crumple zones unaffected, the force of impact instead reverberating directly through the car frame and into the spines of car occupants–can experience serious, life-changing injuries.  

At the same time, it is also possible that someone inside a vehicle that appears to be demolished can walk away from the crash with little to no injury. Just as every person is unique with different preexisting conditions and tolerances for sudden movement, every crash is unique, and it is not advisable to make assumptions about a vehicle’s physical damage always translating or not translating to physical injury. Every situation is unique. 

Can I Choose Where My Car is Repaired After an Accident? 

After a New York car collision, different insurance claims can be pursued. A bodily injury liability claim relates to an injured person’s claim for damages caused by pain-and-suffering resulting from physical or emotional injuries sustained in the crash. In most cases after a New York car collision, a successful bodily injury liability claim will depend on whether the injured person can prove a “serious injury.” An experienced New York personal injury attorney can help explain this sometimes-complex legal concept as applied to a unique situation.  

A bodily injury liability claim is distinct from a property damage claim, which pertains to the repair or replacement of personal property–namely, the involved motor vehicle– after a crash. In exchange for premium payments, an insurance claim of this nature can be filed with the appropriate insurer or insurers. Like most insurance claims, a property damage claim will depend on the precise contractual language and the insurance limits which, broadly speaking, is the most that an insurer will pay out for a certain type of claim.  

Someone with “collision coverage” can file a property damage claim with their own insurance company regardless of fault, whereas someone without collision coverage must file a claim with the other driver’s insurance company. If the cost of repair exceeds that of replacement, the vehicle may be deemed “totaled.” If the cost of repair does not exceed that of replacement, you may have the vehicle repaired at a registered shop of your choice. The length of the repair process will, of course, depend on the availability of labor and supplies.  

Note that whether a vehicle is deemed “totaled” is a function not only of the property damage caused in a crash, but also the fair market value of the vehicle itself.  

For this reason, an argument that that a bodily injury liability claim lacks merit because no vehicles were “totaled” makes no sense at all. The relevant question is what happened to the person’s body inside the vehicle, not what happened to the vehicle.  

Experienced attorneys available to help with bodily injury claims 

The attorneys at William Mattar, P.C. have extensive experience helping injured New Yorkers assert claims for pain and suffering after a car wreck. If you were injured in a car accident and the insurance adjuster is saying that you cannot assert a bodily injury claim because of the lack of property damage, please don’t hesitate to call us today for a free case evaluation. 


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