A common question around my office is, “How do I know what values to claim for my personal goods?”  Fortunately, a 1958 Tennessee Court of Appeals opinion provides the answer, but it is not one that is widely disseminated by adjusters to policyholders.  In Tennessee, household goods, furniture, clothing and other articles acquired for personal use in the home are valued by the “value to the owner” standard, not by their market value.

In Clift v. Fulton Fire Ins. Co., 315 S.W.2d 9 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1958), the court held:

The phrase ‘the actual cash value’ . . . may mean ‘market value’, or the more elastic standard of ‘value to the owner’. 

. . .

‘This doctrine [of ‘value to the owner’] is most frequently and conveniently resorted to in cases of, or damage to, articles which the plaintiff has acquired for personal or domestic use and not for business purposes, such as household goods, clothing, pictures, books, and the like.  While usually these things have some slight value for sale at secondhand, this market value would be a very inadequate compensation to the plaintiff who acquired them for use, not for sale.  The fact that the property was of this character, that is, used clothing or household goods intended for the owner’s use, is a sufficient showing that market value as secondhand goods is an inappropriate standard, and casual holdings that proof must be made that there is no market value can hardly be supported. (citation omitted) 

. . .

In ascertaining the value of goods under this more elastic standard of ‘value to the owner’, evidence of the original cost, of the cost of replacement, the condition of the goods, the use to which they were being put, and all other relevant facts, are to be taken into consideration. 

. . .

The goods covered by this policy were household goods, furniture, wearing apparel, and numerous other articles which had been acquired by plaintiffs for personal use of themselves and their children in their home; and the value of such goods is to be estimated not by the market value, not by what they could be sold for in the market as secondhand goods, but by the more elastic standard of ‘value to the owner’.

Clift, 315 S.W.2d at 11-12.   This standard is certainly fair to the policyholder.  However, actually applying the standard in the real world when reviewing personal property inventory forms is a difficult task indeed.  The standard is particularly helpful when defending an insurer’s claim of fraud through alleged overvaluation. 

Thanks to Chip Merlin at Property Insurance Coverage Law Blog for reminding me of this important nuance.  He commented on a similar case out of Texas in a post you can find here.