When a total loss isn’t really a total loss

You were in a car accident and your airbag deployed. Luckily, you escaped without serious injury. But the insurance company says your car is a total loss and offers you a quick payment to cover the damage.

Does the comparison offer represent the actual value of the car or is it a way for the insurance company to save money? Is it really a total loss? It’s time for the state Department of Insurance and the Attorney General to investigate the ongoing deception regularly perpetrated by some major insurance companies on unsuspecting consumers.

As a general rule, insurance companies consider a vehicle a total loss if the cost of restoring it to its pre-accident condition is more than the car’s worth. And that’s where the problem starts.

Assessment of damage may not be as fair or impartial as required by law. For example, it’s becoming more common for some insurance companies to estimate the cost of repairs without ever physically seeing the car – just a few photos. One company even sends these photos to a supposedly licensed appraiser somewhere overseas. How a person, say, in India, got a Connecticut license in the first place is itself worth investigating. And how come the same Connecticut surveyor’s license seems to sign everything that’s verified in India?

Still, photos alone may not be enough to determine the true cost of repairs. Let’s get the on-site appraisers back to work. Don’t just rely on photos anymore.

After a serious accident, the cost of repairing an airbag alone can range from around $1,000 to as much as $6,000, depending on the make and model of the car. It then becomes fairly easy for the insurance company to say that the car is “total” and not worth repairing.

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Remember, if the insurance company says the car is “total,” you can still accept a check and keep the car — maybe then take it to a reputable shop for a proper repair. And, of course, an insurance company’s comparative offer isn’t necessarily set in stone. You can negotiate, especially when you have data to back up your argument.

Insurance companies, of course, have the right to try to reduce the cost of repairs. This helps keep our insurance premiums as low as possible. However, collusion between an appraiser and an insurance company is illegal – even if the collusion is just the result of a wink and the promise of more work in the future. It needs to be investigated.

The appraiser must remain unbiased, impartial and fair.

Is it fair for an insurance company to take 15 or 20 days to look at the damaged car? Is it fair for the insurance company to stop paying for a rental after delays in even looking at the car? Is it fair to refuse to pay for vehicle storage if the insurance company causes the need for long-term storage?

Also, claiming that a car is “total” because an airbag deployed is neither impartial nor fair. Estimating repair costs solely based on photos is not fair or unbiased.

In the past, the Connecticut General Assembly has considered legislation to prevent outside interference from pressuring licensed repairers to compromise on the quality and safety of repairs. Unfortunately it didn’t pass. Now is the time to reconsider such consumer protection measures.

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Can we count on Attorney General William Tong to help push legislation forward? Can we count on Tong to investigate insurance company misconduct claims more vigorously? And what about the state insurance department? Is this department sufficiently free from pressure from the insurance companies themselves?

Thornton (Scotty) Scott is a co-owner of Family Auto Body and a member of the Auto Body Association of Connecticut. He can be reached at 203-366-5631.