Motor Accident Compensation

Major claims series, Part 4: Vehicle Modifications

TGB’s personal injury team writes about car modifications in compensation claims for people with catastrophic injuries.

Car modifications are among the most common needs for a person with significant injuries. Modifications can be simple and relatively inexpensive or at the other extreme a person may require a new, completely modified replacement vehicle.

A common modification is the addition of a spinner knob on a steering wheel, for someone who may have full use of one arm but not both. This enables the person to be able to control the wheel with one hand.

Pedals and transmission can also be re-arranged depending on the limitations of the injured person.

A step further is setting up hand controls in the vehicle, for people who have difficulty operating pedals perhaps due to a spinal injury or due to restricted function of their legs.

More extensive modifications include lowering the base of a vehicle to improve access.

Sometimes vehicles are not suitable for a person’s modification needs. Generally station wagons and hatch vehicles are better options for someone who uses a wheelchair, as it can be stored in the boot more easily.

Having said that, an issue often faced is not just getting the wheelchair into the boot but then setting up a system where the person can then access the driver’s seat. In these circumstances, a hoist system can often be attached to the vehicle either to the rear or on the roof.

For those with larger, electric wheelchairs some hoist systems may not be suitable. An alternative is to replace the vehicle with a “drive in” van, where the person gains access through the rear and parks their wheelchair at the steering wheel. A van like this can cost in excess of $100,000. Due to the expense, Courts will usually only make an allowance for this in extreme circumstances where there is no other reasonable option.

However, it is usually not difficult to obtain the medical evidence to support an argument for less significant modifications as the benefits to a person with a spinal injury are obvious.

For any level of vehicle modification, the role of the lawyer is an important one. The injured person’s lawyer will work closely with an occupational therapist who makes recommendations based on the person’s physical limitations and their current vehicle.

The lawyer then assists by obtaining quotes and estimated costs of the modifications and then passes on to the insurer. It is important to confirm funding before any modifications are made.

In some cases the insurer may question or dispute aspects of the funding request, and they may ask for more information to assist them in making a decision about funding. This is where the injured person’s lawyer will be involved in the negotiations. The costs of modifications can be high so the insurer clearly needs to see all supporting evidence to ensure that the modifications are necessary and suitable for the injured person.

From a funding perspective, vehicle modifications will often save costs in the long run. Without the right modifications an injured person is often placed under extra physical strain and can overcompensate with other areas of their body which can create wear and tear injuries. Not only is this a major physical issue, it is likely to add to the expense list of the insurer. 

Another issue is licencing. Engineers who modify vehicles must adhere to Australian standards to ensure the safety of the driver and road worthiness of the vehicle. Further, many people who are catastrophically injured need to re-apply for their drivers licence to prove that they are fit to be on the road. In some cases there will be restrictions.

For people who have suffered brain injuries, vehicle modifications are rarely going to be of assistance. It is mostly a question of whether a person has the capacity to operate a vehicle, which is managed by licencing authorities.

Vehicle modifications are not always clear cut, and there are many questions that will be asked relating to a person’s current and future needs, the prevention of further injury and costs. The future vehicle needs of the injured person also need to be considered in view of potential deterioration of their injuries. It is therefore crucial to consult a lawyer for assistance with managing this important aspect of a catastrophic injury claim.

Read PART 1: Recovering the cost of travel here  

Read PART 2: Home modifications here  

Read PART 3: Personal care here  

TGB is a leading personal injury law firm with significant experience in catastrophic injury claims. If you were injured in a motor vehicle accident in South Australia, Northern Territory or Western Australia, contact your nearest TGB office or register for a free initial appointment here.