Tue | Jan 22, 2019

Cedric Stephens | Reporting minor accidents

Published:Sunday | May 13, 2018 | 12:00 AM

QUESTION: I need your advice about a problem. My car was parked in a plaza when a minor accident occurred. The other driver was trying to park in the spot parallel to mine. While doing so he scraped my door panel. The driver indicated to the person who had my car at the time that it was a minor scratch. He promised to pay for the repair. Unfortunately, only phone numbers were exchanged. There was no exchange of documents. The driver called only once, and we never heard from him again. I went to my car wash a couple days later. The car attendant used a compound material to rub the scratch out.

Because I am a regular no charge was made for that part of the service. About two months later, I received a call from my insurer. A claim is made against me and I needed to come in to report the accident. I didn't know that I needed to report something so minor. They have reduced my no claim bonus, pending further investigations. Shouldn't the insurance company investigate the matter and even try to examine my car before paying out any money on my behalf? I believe the other party is making a false claim.

- L.B., Portmore, St Catherine.

INSURANCE HELPLINE: Quick and decisive action is required if you do not want to end up being the loser. I suggest that you do the following:

1. Photograph the door panel that was damaged;

2. Visit your car wash and ask the attendant to make a statement describing what he saw, when and what actions he took in relation to the abrasions on the door panel of your car. Make sure you ask him to date and sign the statement and that it is witnessed. If you do not feel confident to do so, get guidelines from the internet, for example, visit the UK's Health and Safety Executive website and search for witness statements;

3. Obtain a statement from the person who had custody of your vehicle at the time of the accident;

4. File a report with your insurer by completing an accident report form. Most insurers have electronic copies of the form on their websites. You can download and print a copy of the form from your home or office. Ensure that the photographs and the signed witness statements form part of the accident report package;

5. Send a letter with the report package to your insurer. Explain the reason for the delay and that your vehicle was parked when the collision occurred and that neither you nor the person who had custody of it accept any responsibility for any alleged personal injury or property damage; and

6. Ask your insurer to immediately reinstate your no claims discount to the level it was prior to the collision.

The points that I have listed are a broad response to your question. Compare them with the claims condition of your policy.

Here is what I would expect your contract to say: 'After any loss, damage or accident you shall give us full details of the incident in writing within 30 days'. The operative word is the deceptively simply "any". Do minor accidents defined as personal injuries resulting in cuts, scratches and bruises and/property damage causing dents and abrasions to the paint work of automobiles - fall outside of the meaning of that word? What does it mean?

My search to find answers to those two questions led me to a 2011 language log, "Justice Breyer, Professor Austin and The Meaning of 'Any'." The dictionary, surprisingly, was not of much help. The log's author, Kai von Fintel, describes himself as a Professor of Linguistics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who "works on meaning: semantics, pragmatics, philosophy of language, and the intersections thereof" and also "a part-time denizen of the academic Dark Side, as Associate Dean of MIT's School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences".

He quotes Justice Stephen Breyer, an Associate Justice on the US Supreme Court, as saying: "When I see the word 'any' in a statute, I immediately know it's unlikely to mean 'anything' in the universe. 'Any' will have a limitation on it, depending on the context. When my wife says, 'there isn't any butter', I understand that she's talking about what is in our refrigerator, not worldwide. We look at context over and over, in life and in law".

The professor stated that in writing the opinion for a Supreme Court decision (Small v. United States) that hinged on the meaning of "any", Justice Breyer argued that any court was not meant to encompass foreign courts, only domestic ones".

If those rules were to be applied to the interpretation of the claims condition of a local motor policy, it should be clear why the six-point action plan was recommended.

 - Cedric E. Stephens provides independent information and advice about the management of risks and insurance. For free information or counsel, write to: aegis@flowja.com