I'm only getting "book value" for my burned out Chevy. Should I complain?

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Dec 01, 2004

Dear Tom and Ray:

My beautiful 1993 Chevy Caprice Classic four-door sedan with only 28,000 miles on it -- and no dents or scratches -- is now a pile of junk. While parked in front of my home, the engine began to smolder, then it burst into flames. Within 10 minutes, the firefighters arrived. They could not open the hood, but boy did they wield their axes! They almost had fiendish looks in their eyes as they swung their axes and demolished the entire front half of my car. They finally pried open the hood and reached the fire. They said it must have been an electrical short. My tears didn't help put out the fire. Although I paid $18,000 for the car, my insurance company paid me just over $9,000. It said something about "book value." The Chevy garage blamed the fire on a short circuit, but had no other comment. Is there any warranty covering such an event, and do I have any recourse? -- Harold

TOM: Your warranty, in this case, is called "fire insurance," Harold. Unfortunately, that's probably all the recourse you have.

RAY: And remember, you paid $18,000 for the car BRAND NEW. So getting $9,000 11 years later is like winning the lottery, Harold. I'd cash the check before the insurance company comes to its senses and asks for it back.

TOM: If you really want to pursue this, if you recently had some electrical work done to the car you might be able to make a strong circumstantial case that those mechanics were responsible. But without a direct link like that, it's not easy.

RAY: Once a car burns to the extent that yours did, unless you can get Lt. Columbo in there with the forensics squad, there's really no way to tell what started burning first. It could have been a fraying wire that was damaged during an unrelated repair. It could have been a wire that got pinched during a minor fender-bender.

TOM: It could have been your after-market, automatic butt massager gone haywire!

RAY: Whatever the cause, there was a large, unintended discharge of electricity from the battery, and that produced the heat that started the fire.

TOM: In terms of your settlement, you can look up the "Black Book" value yourself. There's a link to it from our Web site, cartalk.com. I think you'll see you're off the charts.

RAY: And, to confirm your observation, the firefighters probably did have a fiendish look in their eyes. After all, it's not often that they get to chop up a car with their bare hands. I've never tried it, but I plan to stop at the hardware store on my way home and buy an axe, and then head right to my brother's driveway!

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