Sometimes the devil is in the documents

Sep 1, 2006 by

By Paul Whiting


Occasionally the best evidence isn’t what’s evident on the roadway or what is purported to be vehicle damage from a collision. In this low speed collision case the key to understanding what happened turned out to be little clues with big meanings that were buried in the various documents submitted with the case file.

This case was a garden-variety low speed impact involving the front bumper of the insured’s car and the rear bumper of the claimant’s vehicle.   The collision occurred in October of 2001 but it wasn’t until January of 2005 that Garrett Engineers, Inc. was called in to help. By that time both the insured and the claimant had attorneys and the case was at an impasse.

The collision occurred around midnight in a motel parking lot in Stockton, California.   The claimant was stopped in the exit driveway waiting to leave the parking lot and the insured approached in the same driveway from the claimant’s rear and collided with the rear bumper of the claimant’s vehicle.   Even though the insured’s vehicle was about 900 pounds heavier than the claimant’s vehicle, there were very large differences in the reported damages that couldn’t be explained simply by the weight difference.   Additionally, the insured’s vehicle had a 2.5 mph energy absorbing bumper while the claimant’s vehicle was equipped with a 5 mph energy absorbing bumper.  This difference would normally result in greater damage to the 2.5 mph bumpered vehicle than the 5 mph bumpered vehicle, at least in low speed collisions.   There was also a huge difference in the claimant’s report of the collision as compared to the insured’s version of how the collision occurred.   The claimant’s vehicle had three young male occupants.   The driver and the two passengers all offered the same story as to how the accident occurred.   They said that the insured’s vehicle entered the parking lot going about 30 mph.   They said the insured’s vehicle then traveled around the parking lot to the exit driveway and then struck their vehicle in the rear, still traveling about 30 mph.   They said their vehicle was hit so hard it was propelled out into the roadway and each of them said they were knocked unconscious for a few seconds.   The claimant’s attorney submitted undated photographs of the claimant vehicle that showed a measured difference of about two inches between the trailing edge of the rear tire and the adjacent edge of the wheel well.   Also the trunk margins were uneven and there was some induced buckling of both rear quarter panels.   The offset rear axle would suggest some frame damage, which could have happened in a collision significant enough to induce damage to the rear quarter panels, but what didn’t make sense was the lack of damage to the rear bumper.   The only damage to the rear bumper was an area about a foot in width where the upper plastic trim piece on the top of the rear bumper had been pushed forward.   Otherwise the rear bumper itself was undamaged and there was no contact damage to the rear panel or the trunk.   The pushed forward bumper trim piece suggested an over ride by the insured’s vehicle but at a very low speed otherwise the insured’s front bumper would have penetrated to the rear panel and trunk.

The insured’s vehicle was very easy to assess.   It showed no damage to its front bumper and the total “repair” to the front bumper was a matter of wiping off a black smudge and touching up a few scratches on the front bumper cover with touch-up paint.   The insured stated that he was approaching the exit driveway at the motel at about 3 mph and did not see the claimant vehicle because they did not have their lights on.   The insured said that he barely tapped their rear bumper as he was already slowing, and when he did see their vehicle, he was able to apply the brakes just before they made contact.   Photographs of the motel parking lot show a large speed bump existing about ten feet prior to where the collision occurred.   If the insured had struck this speed bump at any speed near 30 mph it probably would have launched his vehicle into the claimant’s rear window.   The insured’s statement made sense considering his negligible damage and considering the pushed forward trim piece on the claimant vehicle’s rear bumper but the rest of the damage to the claimant’s vehicle remained a mystery as did the claimant’s insistence that they were knocked out into the street and also knocked unconscious.

The claimant’s attorney wouldn’t hire an expert and declined to take depositions in the case.   The medicals for the three occupants of the claimant’s vehicle were quite high and the only witness the claimant’s attorney intended to call was the treating doctor.   The claimant attorney drug his feet submitting any damage estimates for his client’s vehicle and tried to settle the case for a high amount based on the pictures of the claimant vehicle’s damage and his client’s statements.   Eventually two separate damage estimates were submitted, both from competing body shops in Stockton.   Both estimates listed frame damage, trunk damage, rear quarter panel damage, replacement of the right rear wheel and the need for wheel alignments.

Upon examining these damage estimates it was noted that one was undated by the estimator and the other estimate was dated eleven months after the collision occurred.   A detailed search of the submitted documents in the case file then turned up a record that was obtained from DMV by the insured’s insurance company.   It is a routine document known as an LVR or Lien holder Verification Report.   The report is intended to establish who the actual owner of the vehicle is, if there are any lien holders and other information to identify the vehicle, such as the VIN number.   At the bottom of that document was a very telling piece of information.   In capital letters were the words, “WARNING, 05/25/01 Salvaged.”   So, less than five months prior to this collision the vehicle had been sold as salvage.   Checking the deposition of the claimant, who was also the registered owner, he testified that he had purchased the vehicle the May prior to the collision from A & A in Pittsburgh, California.   It turns out that A & A is an auto auction and salvage company.

Suddenly the case made a lot more sense.   Almost certainly the damage to the frame, rear quarter panels and trunk could be explained as existing at the time the vehicle was purchased as salvage.   Since there was no offering as to the condition of the vehicle at purchase by the claimant’s attorney it would be very difficult for him to argue that the damage all came from the contact with the insured’s vehicle in the motel parking lot while the insured’s vehicle suffered essentially no damage.   There was one final nugget hidden in the documents of the case file.   There was a damage estimate made by the claimant’s insurance company several weeks after the collision that was never brought out by the claimant’s attorney.   It listed basically the same repairs as the other two estimates submitted by the claimant’s attorney but a single line at the bottom of the front page told the rest of the story: “Prior Damages: Frt end Damaged, LR Qtr Damaged, Air bag deployed – All Prior.” While the estimate was for all the repairs, the estimate made it clear that the major damages all existed prior to the collision in the motel parking lot.   There was also a note at the end of the document that stated,“Inspect only, collect all from owner”, indicating that the insurance company didn’t intend to cover these damages as they existed prior to securing the insurance policy.

Neither side would settle this case so a courtroom and trial date was assigned in San Joaquin Superior Court.  On the morning of the trial a final meeting occurred between the insured’s attorney and the claimant’s attorney.   The insured’s attorney showed the evidence and what the documents established about the claimant’s damages to the claimant’s attorney.   She also explained that she would petition the court to exclude as evidence the claimant’s damage estimates from the Stockton body shops as without foundation to establish what had occurred to the vehicle in the eleven months between the collision and the date of the estimate.   Also she would request the claimant’s attorney establish what date the undated damage estimate was performed or else exclude that document also.   Once the claimant’s attorney knew that the insured was aware that the vehicle was salvaged and that there could be no clear nexus made between the collision and the claimed damage to the claimant’s vehicle the claimant’s attorney was anxious to settle.   The insured’s attorney made a low nuisance offer that was well below the value of the medicals alone and without further negotiation the claimant’s attorney took the offer.

Without the subtle details that were uncovered in the many case file documents this case could have ended up as a difference of opinion between two doctors and then into the hands of a sympathetic jury who very well may not have understood the physics of collision damage or the mechanisms of injury.