By Don Archer
Have you ever been called to a difficult recovery that you wish you hadn't? You know, one of those accidents that the vehicle looks to have no damage at all? The challenge, of course, is removing it without causing damage. You do everything within your power. But, short of calling out a helicopter or getting a rotator involved, many times there's nothing that can be done.
Every tow company owner knows this frustration.
In these instances, photo documentation can explain the situation. Documentation helps the insurance company to understand that the damage was not due to negligence, but was a direct result of the initial accident.
However, the insurance company can be the least of your worries. You need to be more concerned about what the owner believes.
Even with photo documentation and a signed release in hand, the vehicle owner may still contest your claims if damage occurs. Of course while you're there solving the problem, they'll be sweet as pie. They might even bring you a glass of lemonade on a warm day. But as soon as you're gone and the reality of a $1,000 deductible sinks in, you'll turn into an inept, bumbling chain-slinger.
Tow truck operators are not free from the responsibility of avoiding collateral damage. We're keenly aware of motorists' expectations and do everything in our power to minimize even the smallest dings and scratches. But where do you draw the line? Where does the liability for damages transfer from the person who put the vehicle in the woods to the person removing it? The answer many outside the industry will give is "once it's on the hook." However, the right answer is ... there is no line.
I've got a few tips on how to avoid the finger-pointing altogether.
Plan A: Go out of your way to solve the problem without damage.
This sounds obvious, but it does come with some stipulations. Take your time to assess the situation and determine if the owner has comprehensive coverage. Inform them that in order to do the job without causing additional damage you'll need more equipment and manpower, which means it'll cost more. If they're covered and understand that this will be an insurance claim, then gather all the equipment and manpower necessary. Call in your heavy, even the rotator if necessary, and get to work.
But, if full coverage insurance isn't in place and there's no way you'll be able to come out ahead using your heavy to recover a 2003 Buick with liability-only insurance, you'll need to go to plan B.
Plan B: Get buy-in from the vehicle owner.
If you've determined that only liability coverage is in place and you fear you're on the scene of a potential damage claim, have the customer understand the situation. Again, take time to assess the situation and involve the vehicle owner in the thinking process. Keeping them involved alerts them to the difficulties you face. Ask questions: Can we drive in the grass? Can we take out this section of fence? Cut down a tree? All the while you're preparing them for the possibility that damage may result.
Get a signed release.
After you've collaborated with the vehicle owner and successfully gotten them to buy-in to the increased level of difficulty and the potential for loss, get them to sign a release. It doesn't need to be elaborate; just a half-page form that states that the owner understands that any damages will be as a result of the accident—not your negligence.
A signed release is not something you'll want to use on every call, because it may raise more questions than you care to answer. However, when the vehicle's not already damaged and you're looking at a difficult recovery, it's a good idea.
It's a good idea even if comprehensive coverage is in place.
Even with this increased attention to detail, you'll never be able to avoid all claims of damage. You'll undoubtedly scare off a few customers and lose a few recovery jobs; but you'll come out ahead in the long run when you save on your deductible and insurance premiums.Don Archer lives and works in Jefferson City, Mo., where he and his wife, Brenda, own and operate Broadway Wrecker, a 12-truck operation that's been in business since the 1950s. Email him at email@example.com.