In the aftermath of so many recent natural disasters, the curious question remains—what happens to all of the damaged and destroyed property previously owned by disaster victims? Of particular concern, is the sheer volume of automobiles, due to both individual and familial ownership of multiple vehicles coupled with the presence of transient vehicles. With many vehicles mangled to unrecognizable condition, and others having been relocated from their original position by storm forces, many vehicles deemed a total loss do actually find their ultimate dormancy in the appropriate location – a junk yard. However, many vehicles, totaled by insurance companies following natural disasters, such as those having water damage caused through flooding, do eventually end up back on our roadways. This problematic concern is further amplified, when, presented with cases where the vehicle, once dried out, appears to the average person as a perfectly good and purchase worthy vehicle. The subsequent concern, then, becomes the legality over the sale, as has been the subject matter in previous litigation.
Although most states require the title of totaled vehicles to be marked, or branded, with specific information indicating the type of loss, existing loopholes often result in the resale of many of these vehicles – many of which may not only be defective, but also dangerous. Water damage caused by flooding, where vehicles might remain submerged for days, is of unique concern. This is particularly true in cases where the damage to the vehicle was caused by salt water, such as in Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy. The unforgiving nature of salt water reportedly causes vehicles to corrode from the inside out, which can result in malfunction, such as mechanical or electrical failure, spontaneous airbag deployment, and even fire.
Litigation concerning the purchase of a flood damaged vehicle has often hinged upon interpretations of statutory language of the presiding jurisdiction. When one is lacking in relevant case law, many jurisdictions have sought clarification through the guiding principles of another jurisdiction having comparable statutes. Arguments may involve discussion over the accuracy of estimates provided by auto repair, auto mechanic, or auto appraisal experts. While one side may claim the accuracy of their auto repair expert through the use of an additional mechanical expert, it can also be expected that an opponent will be equally prepared to present contradicting evidence, presented through testimony from their own automotive expert(s). With statutory interpretation bearing so much upon the designation of liability to a particular party, and given the chain of potentially interested and/or liable parties, overcoming evidentiary issues in a developing area of law, demands appropriate case management protocol. Such protocol necessitates the presentation of expert testimony, or, in the very least consultation with same, as has been previously demonstrated by existing case law in which expert testimony proved to be crucial, or in those otherwise shown wanting thereof.
By: Alicia McKnight, J.D.