Everyone owns property, whether it be a cherished family home or a pair of jeans. Any property can be damaged, lost, or stolen. The good news is that the law provides many remedies to compensate you when another person damages your property.
There are two classes of property. The first is real property, which consists of land and those things that are permanently attached to it, such as a house or trees.
The second type of property is personal property, which is called “chattels.” This is all other types of property. Examples include a truck, couch, or refrigerator.
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Assessing the Value of Property
If someone damages your property, you will undoubtedly want to seek compensation for the damage. But how do you establish the value of that property before you file an insurance claim or lawsuit?
Florida law states that the value of damaged property is the lesser of:
- The cost to repair, replace, or restore the property; or
- The reduction in market value. This is the difference in market value immediately prior to the damage and the value right afterward.
Assume that you just purchased a new oak coffee table for $800. Your mother visits and brings her cat, which promptly jumps on the table and scratches the surface. The scratches reduce the value of the table from $800 to $300, a change of $500. You are able to find a woodworker who can sand down the surface and refinish it for $250.
Here, the value of property damage would be $250 (the cost to repair) because it is less than the reduction in market value ($500).
What if My Property Has Sentimental Value?
The general rule for assessing property damage typically works well. However, there may be an exception available when the damaged or lost property has sentimental value to the owner.
The law might provide a remedy to compensate you for the sentimental value of damaged property if:
- You prove the property is special to you; and
- Limitation to the market value would be manifestly unfair, or the item has no quantifiable market value.
For example, assume that you’ve inherited your mother’s bracelet. It has special value to you because she wore it every day and it reminds you of her. One day, while you’re at work, a burglar breaks in and steals all your jewelry, including the bracelet.
While the market value of the bracelet is almost nothing, it has sentimental value to you. You might be able to sue for the sentimental value of the property.
It’s also possible this exception could apply to unique structures, such as a church, which could have a special value to its members.
Legal Theories for Property Damage
If another person or event is responsible for damaging your property, legal recourse is available in many forms.
Negligence in property law occurs when a person acts unreasonably and causes damage to another person’s property.
To prove negligence, a plaintiff must establish four elements:
- The defendant owed a duty of reasonable care to the plaintiff
- The defendant breached this duty
- The breach caused damage to the plaintiff’s property
- The plaintiff proves the value of the damaged property
While probably the most common theory, other legal bases for property damage also exist.
Theft and Conversion
If someone steals your property, you may be able to recover damages under Florida Statute § 772.11. Under this law, you may sue the thief if you comply with enumerated requirements and can prove the theft by clear and convincing evidence. The remedies for a successful claim are damages equal to three times the actual damages sustained, as well as and reasonable attorney’s fees and court costs.
Conversion is similar to theft. It is defined as the “exercise of wrongful dominion or control over property to the detriment of the rights of the actual owner.” This legal cause of action is based on case law, not statute, and is an alternative legal theory available if someone steals your property.
Trespass to Property
Trespass occurs when a person intentionally enters another’s property. The person trespassing can be held liable for damages they cause to the property while trespassing.
The classic example is trees. A trespasser enters your property, cuts down a stand of trees, and takes them. You may be able to recover damages for the cost of removing the tree stumps and replanting new trees.
Insurance often provides coverage for the loss or damage to both real property and personal property.
With respect to real property, Florida has a so-called Valued Policy Law (Florida Statute § 627.702). This law affects insurance coverage of buildings, structures, mobile homes, and manufactured buildings. It provides that “the insurer’s liability under the policy for such total loss . . . [is the] money for which such property was so insured.
This law was designed to limit lengthy claims processes concerning property damages. If your real property was damaged by a peril your insurance policy covers, the insurance company owes you the amount for which it is covered.
Florida’s no-fault law for car insurance has similar rationale. Under Florida law, you have to turn to your own insurance company after a car accident to recover compensation for damage to your vehicle. This law, too, was designed to simplify the claims process and avoid protracted investigations into fault.
Contact an Attorney For Help
If your property has been damaged, lost, or stolen, our experienced property law attorneys can seek damages through the available legal remedies.