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ask joanne

A friend of mine saw a man whose car was stuck in a snow bank, stopped and offered to help push him out. He accepted. A few other people stopped and joined in. Someone pushed on the spoiler of the car and it snapped off. The driver was furious and demanded compensation, which has not been forthcoming as of yet.

My friend believes the driver told the person to push on the spoiler, but of course he disputes that now (he would testify to that effect if necessary). Are Good Samaritans who are trying to help responsible for damages? Should I just drive on next time and leave it to CAA to get people unstuck? I am guessing that by accepting help, the driver accepts the risks. If he has a claim, would auto or household insurance be able to step in? – Robert in Calgary

Damaging a stranger's car while trying to help them out of a snow bank is unfortunate. Even worse is the fact that an act of goodwill has led to hard feelings.

Does your friend's experience mean that we shouldn't help each other? Absolutely not. But before jumping in and pressing on a stranger's spoiler (or any other inappropriate vehicular location) be aware that if property is damaged and the dispute can't be resolved by those involved, the avenues for recourse are somewhat murky.

According to the Insurance Bureau of Canada (IBC), such a claim may be submitted under the comprehensive coverage of the driver's auto policy. Comprehensive insurance is optional, and covers loss that is not directly related to the operation of the vehicle, such as vandalism or theft. Whether damage caused by the kindness of a stranger qualifies as a covered peril, however, is up to each individual insurer.

"An act like that doesn't necessarily fit within the definition of vandalism, in the same way as a shopping cart being pushed carelessly into your vehicle at a mall parking lot, for example," says Pete Karageorgos, IBC's manager of industry and consumer relations. "It really is up to the insurance company as to how they would proceed with such a claim."

Insurers I contacted did not want to provide comment on the possible result of a claim in which a Good Samaritan has inadvertently damaged a vehicle. The outcomes of such a situation are so varied, said one spokesperson, because each incident is assessed separately, depending on coverage, location and the individuals involved.

If the driver's claim is accepted under the comprehensive portion of a policy, they are still responsible for the deductible. "The only time some companies may waive the comprehensive deductible is for fire. Again, it depends on the company and the policy," says Karageorgos.

"If someone doesn't have comprehensive, their only recourse is to eat the cost on their own – or if they were able to get the person's identity or name, then they would have someone they could take to court if they wanted to," says Karageorgos.

I can't imagine provoking the gods of karma by suing someone who was genuinely trying to help.

"In that case, it's up to the courts to determine negligence," says Karageorgos. "I don't know what the courts would do; suffice it to say I think the court would have a very difficult time. The Good Samaritan was trying to help. Their intent was to do good, and not injure the person or damage their vehicle or property. So it's up to a judge to determine whether that person was negligent or liable for their actions in trying to be a Good Samaritan and helper."

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