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Today: Joe's car fell off the tow truck. Now what?

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Dear Tom and Ray:



I had the "opportunity" to watch my car fall off a flatbed tow truck last night in the middle of Brooklyn. Nothing like waiting two hours for a tow truck because the car wouldn't start, and then seeing it sitting in the middle of a busy intersection while the tow-truck driver keeps repeating "How did that happen?"

I'm waiting on a phone call from the towing company as to what's next, but should I even try to repair a car that fell about five feet off a flatbed tow truck? If so, what kind of damage should I be sure to check for? Since it was dark and I could not see the car very well, all I could see was major damage to the front end (from hitting the bed of the truck on the way down), and the radiator was all bent out of shape. I'm assuming the towing company will just look to repair it the cheapest way possible, and I don't want to have problems in a few months with something that should have been fixed the first time. -- Joe

TOM: I can tell you how it happened, Joe. The driver forgot to attach the safety chains. Or forgot to secure them. When you flatbed a car, you chain the chassis to the bed of the truck so the car doesn't what? Fall off while you're driving!

RAY: A five-foot drop can do a lot of damage. How do I know? I dropped a car off a lift one day, from about five feet. And I mangled it.

TOM: He called the owner of the car and said: "I have good news. You'll never
have to worry about that wind noise from the sunroof again."

RAY: Obviously, the front end of your car got bashed, Joe, but the real question is whether the frame got bent. If a frame is bent badly enough, it can never be adequately restraightened. If that's the case, you can't align the wheels, and the car is, essentially, junk.

TOM: So the most important thing to do now is to have someone who is advocating for YOU inspect the car. If it were me, I'd either have the car towed to my own dealer (by some other towing company!) or call my insurance company.

RAY: If it's a newer car, you might want to take it to your dealer first. They'll give you a full-price assessment of what it would cost to fix. You can use that as a "second opinion" when dealing with your insurance company, which is who you should call next.

TOM: Tell the agent what happened and where the car is, and ask him or her to do a damage assessment and an estimate. Insurance companies have people who do nothing but inspect damaged cars and figure out whether the car can be repaired, and if so, what's the cheapest way to repair it.

RAY: And then let the insurance company pay for the repair. It'll chase the towing company to recoup the money. But the last thing you want is the son of the towing company's owner hammering out the frame in a parking lot at night by the light of a Coleman lantern.

TOM: And don't be surprised if your insurer declares the car a total loss. That may be the best scenario for you. When a car has fallen off a truck or a lift, you can't always see everything that's been damaged. It's like when my brother got clocked in the head by that transmission. Some symptoms might not show up for a while.

RAY: So if it's a "total loss," you'll have to negotiate with your insurance company for a settlement based on the value of the car. And that requires some research on your part. Why? Because the insurance company's business model is based on paying you as little as it has to. So you don't have to accept the first offer.

TOM: But if the insurance company declares it totaled, I'd accept that news stoically, and start over with a car that hasn't tried to learn to fly. Good luck, Joe.
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