Property Damage Cases in Small Claims Court: Calculating the Amount of Your Claim

By , J.D. · New York University School of Law

Property damage cases often end up in small claims court. Property damage cases can be fairly straightforward: When your property has been damaged by the negligent or intentional act of someone else, in most instances you have the right to recover the amount of money it would take to fix the damaged item.

How do you calculate the value of the damaged property? No one knows exactly how much any piece of used property is worth. Recognizing that reasonable minds can differ, it makes sense to place a fairly aggressive value on property that has been destroyed. But don't demand a ridiculous amount, or you'll likely offend the judge and perhaps even weaken your case.

EXAMPLE: John Quickstop plows into Melissa Caretaker's new BMW, smashing the left rear fender. How much can Melissa recover? Melissa is entitled to recover the amount it would cost to fix, or if necessary, replace, the damaged part of her car if John won't pay voluntarily. Melissa should get several estimates from responsible body and fender shops and sue for the amount of the lowest one.

However, when the cost of fixing the item exceeds its total value, you are not entitled to a new or better object than the one that was damaged–only to have your loss made good. Had Melissa been driving a ten-year-old car, the cost to fix the fender might have exceeded the value of the entire car. In this situation, she would be entitled to the value of the car, not what it would cost to repair it. In short, the most you can recover is the fair market value of a damaged item (the amount you could have sold it for) figured one minute before the damage occurred. From this amount, you have to subtract the item's scrap value, if any.

EXAMPLE: Let's return to Melissa from our last example, assuming now that her BMW is ten years old. If several used car price guides indicated the car was worth $2,800 and it would cost $3,000 to repair the fender, she would be limited to $2,800 compensation, minus what the car could be sold for in its damaged state. If she could only sell the car for $800 for scrap, she would be entitled to $2,000. However, if Melissa had installed an expensive rebuilt engine a few weeks before the accident, she might legitimately argue that the car was worth $3,800. Assuming the judge agreed, Melissa would legally be entitled to recover the entire $3,000 to replace the fender, because the car is worth more than replacing the fender.

Unfortunately, knowing what something is worth and proving it are quite different. A car that you are sure is worth $4,000 may look like it's only worth $3,000 to someone else. In court, you will want to be prepared to show that your piece of property is worth every bit of the $4,000. The best way to do this is to get some estimates (opinions) from experts in the field (like a used car dealer if your car was totaled). One way to present this type of evidence is to have the expert come to court and testify, but in small claims court you can also have the expert prepare a written estimate, which you then present to the judge. Depending on the type of property involved, you may also want to check newspaper ads and the Internet for the prices asked for comparable goods and submit these to the judge. And of course, there may be other creative ways to establish the dollar amount of the damage you have suffered.

Many people insist on believing they can recover the cost of getting a replacement object when theirs has been totaled. As you should now understand, this isn't necessarily true. If Melissa's $1,200 car was totaled and she claimed she simply couldn't get another decent car for less than $2,000, she would still be limited to recovering $1,200.

Damage to Clothing Cases

Clothing is property, but it is worth discussing separately. First, because disputes involving clothing are extremely common in small claims court. Second and more important, judges seem to apply a logic to them that they apply to no other property damage cases. The reason for this is that clothing is personal to its owner and often has little or no value to anyone else, even though it may be in good condition. It follows that if a judge strictly applied regular personal property rules (that you are limited to recovering no more than the current market value of a damaged item), plaintiffs would often get little or no compensation. Recognizing this, most judges are willing to bend the rules a little to arrive at a value for damaged clothing that is based on the item's original cost and how long it had been worn.

When suing for damage to new or almost-new clothing, it follows that you should sue for the amount you paid. If the damaged item has already been worn for some time, sue for the percentage of its original cost that reflects how much of its useful life was used up when the damage occurred. For example, if your two-year-old suit that cost $900 new was destroyed, sue for $450 if you feel the suit would have lasted another two years.

In clothing cases, most judges want answers to these questions:

  • How much did the clothing cost originally?
  • How much of its useful life had already passed at the time the damage occurred?
  • Does the damaged item still have some value to the owner, or has it been ruined?

Example 1: Wendy took her new $250 coat to Rudolph, a tailor, to have alterations made. Rudolph cut part of the back of the coat in the wrong place and ruined it. How much should Wendy sue for? The entire $250, because the coat was almost new. She could probably expect to recover close to this amount.

Example 2: The same facts as in Example 1, but the coat was two years old and had been well worn, although it was still in good condition. Here, Wendy would be wise to sue for $175 and hope to recover between $100 and $150.

Example 3: This time let's return Wendy's coat to its almost new condition but have Rudolph damage it only slightly. I would still advise Wendy to sue for the full $250. Whether she could recover that much would depend on the judge. Most would probably award her a little less on the theory that the coat retained some value. Wendy should argue that she didn't buy the coat expecting to not be able to wear it in public, and as far as she was concerned, the coat was ruined.

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