Fraudulent insurance claims can be difficult to analyze. Determining if a vehicle has been damaged by hail or has been dented or scratched intentionally with a tool requires a straightforward inspection, some basic facts about hail and weather conditions, and a good camera. Time-tested procedures for assessing damage include obtaining thorough background and weather information, evaluation of the dents and marks in the vehicle panel (micro and macro) to determine their cause, and meticulous documentation of the findings.
The damage assessment process requires a basic understanding of the characteristics of hail. Hailstones vary in size, shape, and hardness. Generally, the larger their size, the fewer the hailstones and the farther apart they fall. More than 60% of hailstones are relatively smooth and nearly spherical; however, sometimes hailstones are jagged or even elliptical in shape. Hardness also is a key factor, as harder hailstones have a greater ability to damage vehicle panels.
Typically, wind-driven hailstones impact everything that is unsheltered in a random pattern. Surfaces facing the wind incur greater impacts than those on the leeward side. The leeward surfaces are effectively sheltered and suffer only glancing blows.
How hail affects metal vehicle panels is determined by the hailstone’s characteristics and the panel’s type of metal, thickness, profile, and support. Smaller and less dense hailstones may not dent panel metal, but will remove oxides from paint on the panel surface leaving evidence known as a spatter mark. Metal thickness also determines whether or not the panel will dent. Testing has shown that the threshold size for hail to dent a steel vehicle body panel is solidly frozen ice one inch in diameter. Softer aluminum panels and bright metal trim material may be dented by hard ice that is one-half inch in diameter.
Hail impacting a metal vehicle panel produces a dent that typically is conical in shape and has shallow sides. The center of the dent usually sustains a slight crease and no loss of paint. With paint intact, most dents can be removed without painting the vehicle. Thus, hail-caused dents can be removed by having the vehicle repaired at a business that does paintless dent removal (PDR).
Since hailstones fall randomly and typically are wind-driven, impact marks will be distributed randomly on exposed surfaces. They usually strike a vehicle from one direction—that of the storm. Thus, the windward side of a vehicle will sustain greater damage than those panels protected by the rest of the vehicle itself, buildings, or adjacent automobiles. Also, any vehicle panels elevated above nearby protection (such as other cars or fences) and on the windward side will sustain greater impact and damage. All exposed surfaces will be impacted, including the softer, more easily damaged vehicle components such as bright trim.
Hail Damage vs. Mechanical Damage
Dents that are caused by natural hail typically vary in size, have shallow bottoms, and have very light creases across their widths. A hail-caused dent will be randomly located on a panel instead of arranged in a pattern in relation to other dents, and will not exhibit a scratch in its center. Natural hail is relatively soft and typically does not harm paint.
On the other hand, intentional or mechanically caused dents are created with a metal tool that is usually much harder than natural hail. As a result, marks made by a metal tool generally are uniform in size with sharp, crescent-shaped creases accompanied by a scratch in the paint.
When evaluating a dent, be aware of unintentional mechanical damage such as door dings, scratches, and pebble chips that result from normal wear. These imperfections are easily identified and typically exist where hail dents would not occur. A small amount of unintentional damage is to be expected, increasing with the age of the vehicle.
Random sizes and shapes of hailstones on the ground following a hailstorm.
Car windshield severely damaged by large hailstones.
Truck with body panels and windshield showing evidence of recent hail impact.
Dent in vehicle body panel with paint removed from its center. Hail is not hard enough to scratch or remove paint.
Inspecting Vehicles for Damage
The first step in assessing vehicle damage is obtaining background information from the owner as to when the vehicle was impacted by hail and where the vehicle was located at the time. Then, obtain weather records for the incident’s date and location, including publicly reported facts about the hailstorm from local newspapers. If possible, inspect the vehicle at the same location where the incident occurred to confirm whether or not any environmental factors such as trees, buildings, or other obstructions could have shielded the vehicle and affected the distribution of dents.
For identification purposes, document the vehicle’s make, model, color, vehicle identification number (VIN), license plate number, mileage and date of manufacture. Also, record exterior characteristics such as composite or aluminum body panels and other critical trim pieces.
Before inspecting for damage, be sure the vehicle’s surface is clean. If the vehicle is not clean, it must be washed to ensure that all dents are observable and subtle details are not obscured. Start your inspection at the hood and move counter clockwise to each successive body panel, finishing with the right-front quarter panel and roof.
Closely examine each dent panel-by-panel, and number and list its characteristics. Specifically, look for creases or scratches and whether or not these impacts have half moon-shapes, round bottoms, consistent size, or any other distinguishing characteristics. Mark the dents with contrasting colored tape placed adjacent to the dents. Use various colors of tape to differentiate types of dents encountered, e.g. blue for dents with typical creases, white for dents with scratches in the center.
Hammers are often used to inflict mechanical damage.
Observe the meandering damage pattern along the vehicle’s side panels—evidence that damage was not due to hail.
Next, step back to examine and evaluate the dents now indicated by pieces of tape on each panel. Determine if the distribution is random or if there are patterns to the dents such as circles, triangles, arcs, or straight lines. Because hail dents are distributed randomly, they do not generate multiple dent patterns of circles, triangles, or straight lines. Therefore, multiple dents in patterns or non-random distribution indicate intentional mechanically caused damage.
Finally, the entire vehicle must be examined to evaluate the overall dent distribution. A greater number of dents on flat panels with a few dents on one side of the vehicle is typical of the wind-blown characteristics of hail damage. The distribution of the dents will be directional (windward sides receiving more damage than leeward), and the dents usually will not be present on all panels of the vehicle. A few dents or no dents on flat panels and numerous dents on all side panels are common characteristics of intentional mechanical damage.
To document the damage, photograph the vehicle with the tape attached. Take general overview photographs of the vehicle and close-ups of each panel. Also, take several close-ups of the dents themselves to show any atypical characteristics such as scratches in the paint, sharp creases, or deep dents. Sometimes close examination of the dent center can lead to identification of the tool used to create it.
After evaluating the characteristics of each dent, the distribution on each panel, overall distribution on the vehicle surface, and available weather data for the time the incident occurred, the true cause of vehicle dents can be clearly determined—whether from nature or from another source.
Robert N. Fleishmann
, P.E., has been with Haag Engineering Co.
since 1984. His primary areas of consulting include mechanical failures, vehicular evaluations, plumbing evaluations, roofing systems, and code/standards compliance. For more information about Haag Engineering Co.
, please visit our Web site at www.haagengineering.com