Property Damage

Property damage is defined as some harm that is inflicted upon someone’s property as the result of another person’s negligence, willful destruction of that person’s property, or by an act of nature. Flooding caused by a hurricane is an example of property damage caused by an act of nature. Unlike damages that are incurred from acts of nature, damages that are caused by someone’s negligence or willful destruction can be the subject of a lawsuit. To explore this concept, consider the following property damage definition.

Definition of Property Damage

Noun

  1. Injuries to a person’s property resulting from an act of nature, or from another person’s negligent or willful misconduct.

Property Damage Liability

Property damage liability may be awarded in a lawsuit for damage caused by another person’s negligent or willfully destructive behavior. In lawsuits concerning property damage liability, it is important to distinguish property damage from personal injuries. Unlike personal injuries, which are injuries a person suffers physically, property damage refers to harm that is done to someone’s personal property, such as a car, a fence, a house, a bicycle, or another type of personal possession.

The amount a person can recover in a property damage liability lawsuit is determined by the replacement value of the property that was damaged. Calculated also are the costs of any repairs, the loss of use until the item is repaired or replaced, and the sentimental value of certain items, such as heirlooms.

Insofar as the loss of use is concerned, damage to a car is perhaps the best example of this type of lawsuit. Here, the loss of use would concern the cost of public transportation, or for a rental car, incurred as a result of not having use of the car.

Uninsured Motorist Property Damage

Uninsured motorist property damage coverage (UMPD) is pretty straightforward. This type of auto insurance coverage pays for the damages incurred by the policy holder when someone without insurance, or who is underinsured, hits his car. It also pays for damages to a car that is involved in a hit-and-run collision. Typically, uninsured motorist property damage coverage is needed when collision coverage is not included in someone’s insurance policy. In this case, the UMPD would cover what the collision provision in another insurance policy would cover.

In some cases, it is still worth it to invest in uninsured motorist property damage coverage because it may pay for more than what collision insurance would cover. UMPD coverage only pays a victim up to the value of his car. In some states it pays even less. Therefore, if someone is driving an older car that is not worth much, then it may not be beneficial for that person to carry UMPD coverage.

The rules regarding UMPD vary widely, depending on the state. For instance, UMPD is required in 14 states, including New Jersey, North Carolina, Texas, and Vermont. Utah and Washington allow their policyholders to decline UMPD coverage if they already have elected for collision coverage.

In some states, like Alaska, California, and Tennessee, drivers must carry UMPD coverage unless they specifically reject the coverage in writing. Most of the states in the U.S. do not have a UMPD requirement, which means it is up to the insurance companies as to whether they want to offer UMPD, and many of them choose not to.

Negligent Property Damage vs. Intentional Property Damage

Property damage can either be negligent or intentional in nature. Negligent property damage is a result of someone acting irresponsibly. Intentional property damage occurs when someone sets out to deliberately break or otherwise damage someone else’s property. The property can be anything from real estate, like someone’s home or office building, to personal property, like cars, electronics, and clothing. Someone who causes harm to someone else’s property through negligence or intention may be liable for damages.

Property damage that results from negligence can occur in several ways. For example, negligent property damage can occur when a negligent driver runs a stop sign and collides with another car. This type of situation can result in both personal injury and property damages, as the driver of the other car may become injured as a result of the accident.

The following is an example of property damage that can occur from someone’s intentional misconduct, and the ways in which it can affect the victim monetarily:

Billy finds out that his girlfriend is cheating on him with Adam, so he goes to Adam’s house to confront him. Upon seeing Adam, Billy gets so angry that he punches a hole through Adam’s door. Billy is then liable for the damages he caused to Adam’s door.

Adam has to stay home to wait for the repairman, which forces him to take an unpaid day off work. It is also winter time, so despite putting a sheet over the door to temporarily cover the hole, Billy must use more money on heating the home. This is because his heater has to work overtime to heat the house, which is colder now due to the hole in the door.

Once the door has been fixed, Adam sues Billy for compensation to recover for property damage. He sues Billy for the repair costs, as well as for the day of work that he missed, and the extra fuel that was used in heating his colder-than-usual house.

Those who sue for property damage are usually awarded compensatory or actual damages. This means that the dollar amount of the loss must be proven in court through documents like repair bills, receipts, and appraisal reports. Depending on the property that is damaged, the owner of the property can also sue for emotional distress, or pain and suffering related to any personal injury. Compensation for emotional distress and pain and suffering cannot generally be awarded for property damage.

In most cases, the property owner may be awarded more money if he can prove that the person who caused the damage did so intentionally. This type of award is known as “punitive damages,” and is awarded for the purpose of punishing the defendant for his outrageous conduct. Typically, those who sue over property damage only recover the cost of repairing or replacing the property.

In certain cases, a defendant to a property claim may be able to assert an affirmative defense as to why he damaged the property. For example, property damage may occur inadvertently, when the defendant was trying to defend himself, another person, or another piece of property. Similarly, a defendant may claim that it was necessary for him to damage the property in order to prevent a much greater injury from happening to himself or to others. These defenses may not eliminate the defendant’s liability, but they may greatly reduce the damages he is ordered to pay.

Property Damage Example Involving an Injured Dog

On April 10, 2004, Sarah Burgess took her dog, Murphy, to her local branch of Shampooch Pet Industries. Two days before, Sarah had taken Murphy to the veterinarian, who had determined that Murphy was in good health. Murphy also appeared to be in good health when Sarah left her at Shampooch. After Sarah picked up the freshly groomed Murphy, having paid her $30 bill, she noticed that Murphy was behaving strangely and was limping.

Sarah immediately went back into Shampooch, and one of the employees there denied being responsible for Murphy’s injury. The next day, Sarah took Murphy to the vet. Three days after Murphy’s grooming, she underwent surgery to repair a dislocated hip. Her treatment consisted of x-rays, blood work, and anesthesia, amongst other procedures. The final bill came to over $1,300. Sarah then filed a petition against Shampooch for property damages, alleging that Shampooch was negligent in its care of Murphy.

According to the district court, Sarah testified during the trial that Murphy had returned to her usual self shortly after recovery from her surgery. After trial, a judgment was entered against Shampooch in the exact amount that it cost Sarah to pay for Murphy’s surgery and related treatments. Additionally, the court entered a judgment in Sarah’s favor for the costs she incurred in bringing Shampooch to court. Shampooch, of course, appealed the decision.

In its appeal, Shampooch argued that a pet does not have market value in the same way that a piece of property, such as a car or an office building, would have. However, Shampooch contradicted its own argument when it stated:

“People put dollar values – and therefor[e] market values – on their pets all the time. Sometimes it’s just ‘a good home;’ sometimes it’s a specific dollar value in a want ad; sometimes people actually have their pets put to sleep because they don’t want to pay the vet bills for curing or fixing some existing damage or injury to the pet, thus putting a value on their pet at least less than vet bills. There are a number of ways to establish market values for pets.”

Shampooch believed that the damages awarded to Sarah should have been limited to Murphy’s market value. It asked the appellate court to reverse the award and to remand the case back to the lower court so that the damages could be recalculated.

The appeals court ultimately affirmed the decision of the trial court, holding that the amount that was awarded to Sarah was appropriate in relation to what she had spent on Murphy’s veterinary bills. The court disagreed with Shampooch’s contention that Murphy had “market value,” saying:

“It can hardly be said that a lesser award – for example, Murphy’s original purchase price of $175 depreciated over 13 years – would ‘make good the injury done’ … or fairly and adequately compensate Burgess for her out-of-pocket expenses.”

Further, the Court disagreed with Shampooch on its “hyperbolic” claim that allowing the lower court’s ruling to stand would “open the floodgates of high dollar litigation on behalf of animals with market value substantially less than the claims.” The Court supported its decision by recounting its finding that Murphy’s care and treatment were necessary, and that the costs were reasonable and not out of the ordinary to repair what Shampooch’s negligence had ultimately caused.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Actual Damages – Money awarded to compensate someone for actual monetary or property losses. Also referred to as “compensatory damages,” the amount of money awarded is based on the proven loss, injury, or harm proven by the plaintiff.
  • Affirmative Defense – The introduction of evidence in a trial that would negate, or “cancel out,” the defendant’s civil or criminal legal responsibility for the alleged act.
  • Civil Lawsuit – A lawsuit brought about in court when one person claims to have suffered a loss due to the actions of another person.
  • Compensatory Damages – An award of money in compensation for actual economic loss, property damage, or injury, not including punitive damages.
  • Defendant – A party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
  • Punitive Damages – Money awarded to the injured party above and beyond their actual damages, to punish the wrongdoer for outrageous misconduct in a civil matter.

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