EVIDENCE: Why Are Property Damage Pictures Important in a Personal Injury Trial?

The property damage loss to an injured victim’s vehicle after a car accident, motorcycle crash, bicycle accident or truck accident creates a separate claim from their personal injury case.  In most instances, the property damage claim is resolved long before the personal injury claim.[1]  Whether our client’s vehicle is repaired or considered a total loss (where the cost of repairs exceeds the retail value of the vehicle before being damaged), the property damage claim is often paid by the at-fault driver’s insurance company promptly following the collision.  While the personal injury law firm of Allen & Allen provides advice to our clients to help facilitate this transaction, rarely is a lawsuit required to resolve a property damage claim.  However, sometimes some hard bargaining is required to get the insurance company to pay what they should pay.   (Generally, our Law Firm takes no fee for assisting with property damage settlements).

Why, then, during the trial of one’s personal injury claim is evidence permitted of the property damage caused by the collision when that loss has already been paid?  The answer is that the extent of the property damage provides some helpful information about the forces of impact which caused the plaintiff’s injuries.  Our Virginia Supreme Court has expressly authorized the introduction of property damage photographs into evidence at trials for personal injury cases for this purpose.[2]

Consequently, where only minor damage occurs to the vehicles in a collision, defense lawyers for the at-fault driver’s insurance company often show photographs of the vehicles at trial and argue to the jury that the plaintiff could not be hurt seriously, if at all, by such a minor impact.  Conversely, where property damage is significant, plaintiffs’ lawyers present photographs showing the damaged vehicle to a jury to provide supporting evidence to prove that the plaintiff’s injuries were caused by the crash.  Although at trial our client and their treating medical providers all testify the injuries that were treated were caused by the crash, pictures of property damage also tend to influence a jury’s assessment of the severity of the injuries. Hence, the old saying that “a picture is worth a thousand words” holds true.

Therefore, as a general rule, it is important to take photographs of the damage to the vehicles caused by a collision while they are available to preserve that evidence in the event a civil trial for personal injuries occurs later.  At our law firm, we believe it is important enough to document the property damage that we often dispatch investigators immediately after we have been retained to take photographs of the vehicles involved in the collision in order to have that evidence in the event a civil trial for personal injuries happens months later.  The photographs are also helpful to convince the insurance company in settlement negotiations that the injuries were, in fact, caused by the collision, and that – if we are not able to reach a settlement – that a jury will likely conclude that also.

About the Author: Charles L. Allen is among the third generation of Allen family attorneys to have worked with the personal injury law firm Allen, Allen, Allen & Allen. Since joining the firm in 1983, Charles has had extensive experience handling various types of personal injury cases. He currently works in the Richmond, Virginia office of the firm and serves clients across the state of Virginia.

[1] Unlike many states, in Virginia you can “split” your claims between personal injury and property damage, and settle them separately if you make it clear that that is what you are doing.   See  Carter v. Hinkle, 189 Va. 1, 52 S.E.2d 135 (1949), for principle that an incident resulting in damage to both person and property in Virginia gives rise to distinct claims and recovery in one is no bar to recovery in other.  For a discussion of when “splitting” of causes of action is not permitted under Virginia law, see Gary Steel Corp. v. Kitchin, 197 Va. 471, 90 S.E.2d 120 (1955).

[2] See Eubank v. Spencer, 203 Va. 923, 128 S.E.2d 299 (1962), and Wallen v. Allen, 231 Va. 289, 293-294 (Va. 1986).