11

Based on a true story: Bob's car is parked in the street. Ted is driving down the street recklessly with Alan as a passenger. Ted sideswipes Bob's car doing quite a lot of damage, but takes off.

Next day, Alan shows up at Bob's doorstep saying, "You wanna get the guy who sideswiped your car last night? I was the passenger in that car and I was scared witless and I banged my head hard when he hit your car." Bob says, "Heck yes" and Alan takes him to Ted's house where Ted's vehicle is parked. Bob gets pictures of Ted's vehicle showing the damage and paint scrapings from Bob's car. He's got this evidence plus Alan as a witness.

Bob calls the Austin Police Department and after a couple minutes the cop says, "You know, we're not going to do anything about this." "Why not?" "Because we're losing 40 cops per month, and we can't hire more. We have only 3 cops for all of downtown Austin just not. Our response time for an active shooter is 18 minutes. We don't have the manpower for this."

Bob is lamenting about this to one of his friends. The friend says, "Why don't you engage The Hammer?" (The Hammer is a personal injury lawyer who has billboards all over Austin and commercials that run every 2 minutes on daytime TV.) He goes on: "Give the The Hammer all your evidence and let him treat it as a civil case. He can get to the court system, sue the pants off of Ted and you don't have to go through the police."

So my question is: Is Bob's friend on to something? If cops won't act in a criminal case, is possible and sensible to hire The Hammer to get restitution?

Additional information: Bob's car was a project car, and wasn't registered, licensed, or insured at the time.

5
  • In this scenario, is Bob's car insured for the damages?
    – Sneftel
    Jul 5 at 14:07
  • @Sneftel Good question. Let's say "no." In the real case, the car is a project car, and the project wasn't finished, so the car wasn't registered or licensed.
    – B. Goddard
    Jul 5 at 14:14
  • Cheesy Jim Adler? Jul 5 at 22:32
  • 6
    Friendly reminder that OJ might have got off criminally, but the civil case cost him millions.
    – corsiKa
    Jul 6 at 4:11
  • @AbraCadaver I had Thomas J. Henry in mind. Any one of the dozens in Austin would do. I'm surprised they don't start suing each other for hogging up all the TV commercial slots.
    – B. Goddard
    Jul 6 at 13:42
17

Bob can certainly "engage" a personal injury lawyer, but it is highly unlikely that they would take the case...

Let's take a look at the facts...

In Texas, you are required to register every vehicle unless it is damaged beyond repair or destroyed (it's intended to be scrapped). Bob did not do this

In Texas, every registered vehicle must be insured, at a minimum, for liability insurance. Bob did not do this

But, because of the insurance requirement you can get the information from TxDOT about the other vehicle's registration and insurance. It's more likely than not that the other vehicle is also uninsured, but if it is, Bob should contact Ted's insurance company.

Because Bob did not register or insure the car that was parked on the street, Bob assumed liability that the insurance company would typically cover. If Bob had properly insured the vehicle, including uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage (which must be declined in writing in Texas), Bob would be whole (minus the deductible). Bob's total liability should be the deductible on the vehicle.

Another not-small contributing factor is that this is a self-proclaimed "project vehicle", meaning it has low current value despite a possible high future value. Without insurance, the entire liability would amount to the actual current value of the vehicle, the amount it would take to buy another in exactly the same condition.

Now back to the PI lawyer, they make money by suing insurance companies for personal injury (damage to your car is not a "personal injury") because they have the ability to pay. Private individuals, especially those without insurance, typically do not have the ability to pay. The PI can typically recover all the attorneys fees + up to half the judgement. So even if the PI agreed to take the case, and they won some amount (let's say $50,000 which includes attorneys fees and judgement), Ted would probably not be able to pay for this. The PI goes back to the client for the fees and now Bob is in even worse condition, since a majority of the $50,000 judgement would be attorneys fees.

Really the best remedy Bob has in this case is to sue Ted in small claims for the value of the vehicle up to the maximum of the court (in Texas, this is a generous $20,000). Small claims courts have a lower burden of proof and Bob can use Alan as a witness.

8
  • 13
    I don't think Bob's insurance matters. You aren't required to get uninsured coverage, and Bob's liability coverage seems irrelevant because Bob isn't liable; Ted is. Ted can't argue a defense that Bob should have had insurance; this would have simply made Ted liable to the insurance company instead of Bob so it wouldn't help him.
    – D M
    Jul 5 at 21:48
  • 1
    And if any attorney is charging half the judgement on top of their fees, even if the plaintiff doesn't actually recover any money, I think you should inform the state bar, because that's into "unconscionable" territory.
    – D M
    Jul 5 at 21:58
  • 7
    I think a fair amount of this is incorrect. PI attorneys, for instance, are rarely going to charge a fee for their services and will instead work on a contingency basis. Also, I don't know of any small-claims court that would have a lower burden of proof than a court of general jurisdiction. In most courts, the burden would be a preponderance of the evidence; the only lower options would be for Bob to prove that there's a 50/50 chance that Ted was negligent, or for Bob to prove that Ted probably wasn't negligent. The Due Process Clause would forbid a recovery in either scenario.
    – bdb484
    Jul 5 at 22:20
  • 4
    Bob's total liability should be the deductible on the vehicle.. Assuming you mean Ted's liability, this is wrong. If Bob had insurance then the insurance would pay Bob the full amount (minus deductible), and then go after Ted for that amount. So the only difference is whether Ted gets sued by Bob or his insurance company. Jul 6 at 8:00
  • 3
    An implication of this answer is that a property owner has less protection for damage to a car than some other type of property. E.g. if they had a valuable sculpture in their yard, and Ted damaged it, there would be no requirement that Bob register and insure it -- Ted (or his insurance company) would be liable for its value.
    – Barmar
    Jul 6 at 14:12
10

Yes. This happens every day, possibly hundreds of times around the United States.

3

You don't ask about this, but there is a third option in some jurisdictions: to bring a private criminal prosecution against Ted. In my home jurisdiction of England and Wales, private prosecutions are allowed, though not common. The Crown Prosecution Service may at its discretion take over a private prosecution at any stage, either to continue it to its conclusion, or to discontinue it; but anyone can start one.

In England and Wales if you are involved in a collision which causes damage to property you must stop and give your details to anyone reasonably requiring them, and if nobody does, you must report it to the police "as soon as is reasonably practicable", and in any case within 24 hours (s170, Road Traffic Act 1988). Ted's failure to do so constitutes an offence, so a private prosecution could be brought if the police wouldn't investigate, or the CPS declined to proceed.

I note you don't specify the jurisdiction you're asking about, though I infer it's Texas, USA; but I thought it worth noting the option exists in some places, and may exist for Bob.

5
  • Thanks. This scenario seems to happen a lot on this SE: Issue with US law arises, corresponding issue is covered sensibly in British law. Maybe it's time to bring back King George.
    – B. Goddard
    Jul 6 at 11:24
  • 1
    This is even simpler in British motoring law. Bob's untaxed and unregistered "project vehicle" is not a "vehicle" at all. It is simply an object which presumably is obstructing the public highway, so Ted (or more likely, his insurance company) would be fully entitled to recover the cost of damage to his own vehicle from Bob, It makes no difference whether Bob had left an unregistered "project vehicle" or a heap of building rubble in the road causing a hazard to other traffic.
    – alephzero
    Jul 6 at 12:28
  • 1
    @alephzero Not so. Various things can be left in the highway (skips, deliveries of building materials etc). And a car is a car, whether taxed and insured or not. Bob may not want to draw attention to his uninsured status because being uninsured is an offence, but it's irrelevant to whether Ted is liable. Best bet is to go round to Ted's house and ask for cash to settle the matter.
    – Ben
    Jul 6 at 18:26
  • @B.Goddard: Actually private prosecution exists in the US as well; it's just almost never done.
    – Joshua
    Jul 6 at 19:10
  • In Texas, a private citizen can ask a grand jury to indict but can't prosecute a case. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Private_prosecution#Texas
    – ohwilleke
    Jul 6 at 22:27
-5

No

A personal injury lawyer is for when you have suffered a personal injury. Bob hasn’t suffered personal injury, he’s suffered property damage.

He can certainly sue (with or without a lawyer) but he may not need to. If Ted is insured, a letter of demand on Ted and the insurer will probably result in a repair or cash settlement.

If Ted is not insured then Bob needs to do a risk reward calculation to decide if it’s worth suing and if it’s worth engaging a lawyer. Courts and lawyers cost money and you don’t always win and even if you do win you don’t always get beck what you expect and sometimes the judgement debtor doesn’t pay and you have to consider enforcement action (and associated costs).

For a personal injury case, the benefits can be hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars, for “quite a bit of damage” to a car, they can be hundreds or thousands of dollars. It might be worth paying a lawyer a few hundred to write a letter of demand but it’s probably not worth suing if that doesn’t work.

In any event, even if the police had prosecuted Ted, that wouldn’t help Bob. Any fines go to the city, not to Bob.

5
  • 2
    "A personal injury lawyer is for when you have suffered a personal injury. Bob hasn’t suffered personal injury, he’s suffered property damage." Does the Texas Bar prohibit lawyers from taking on cases outside of their area of specialization?
    – nick012000
    Jul 6 at 0:25
  • 3
    @nick012000 It does not, and a PI lawyer is going to be accustomed to dealing with the property-damage aspects of auto lawsuits. Jul 6 at 1:19
  • even if the police had prosecuted Ted, that wouldn’t help Bob. Bob can apply for restitution. tdcj.texas.gov/documents/Restitution_Brochure.pdf Jul 6 at 8:03
  • 1
    @PaulJohnson if the judge will talk to Bob, that is. The victim of a crime is not a party to a criminal prosecution (unless the state is the victim). Unless there is some provision of Texas law that requires the judge to take the victim's interests into account, the judge will be under no obligation even to entertain a petition for restitution. Conversely, the judge may order the restitution without being prompted, or the prosecutor may request restitution, whether independently or in response to a request by the victim.
    – phoog
    Jul 6 at 10:58
  • Self-described personal injury lawyers almost always accept tort cases involving property damage to automobiles without physical injury, although they won't necessarily take them on a contingent fee basis.
    – ohwilleke
    Jul 6 at 22:25

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