A few weeks ago, I was on the phone with my cousin, a freelance photographer living in Los Angeles. He had been shooting some fashion shots at a client's warehouse and paused to look over some of the slides with the client. He set his camera on the ground and one of the client's employees accidentally kicked it while walking by. Luckily, the camera body (worth about $5K retail) remained intact, but the lens was shot to hell. It would cost him $600 to replace and he wasn't sure if he should ask the client to cover that cost. On the one hand, the client was responsible and my cousin didn't have 600 spare dollars lying around. On the other hand, my cousin is a freelancer and didn't want to risk losing the client by asking him to pay for the lens. To add another wrinkle, he needed to get the lens replaced ASAP because he only had the one camera and couldn't book more jobs without it.
We discussed the pros and cons of approaching the client, but in my mind, time and ability to book more jobs was more important, so I told my cuz "file a claim with your insurance company right away." His response: "I don't have insurance." D'oh!
With the exception of acting or interpretive dance, every artist needs some form of equipment to do the job. All art is reliant on it, especially film and photography. Which is why you absolutely, positively, unequivocally without hesitation need to insure your gear.
Because here's the thing: your gear is the single biggest investment you will ever make in your work. And if it gets damaged, your ability to do your job decreases exponentially. You do have some legal options, but the law is not particularly user friendly, what with all the time and money involved in suing someone... money that you probably don't have lying around waiting to be burned. And anyway, why sue when insurance is so much cheaper and easier? Besides, it's not like you have an unassailable right to have the client pay for your damaged gear (unless the client agrees to it in writing which I've never seen in my seven years of producing television). In my experience, insuring your gear is the best way to cover your ass... especially in those early lean years when you really can't afford to piss off a client by demanding he pay for gear he broke.
Truth: early in my freelance career, I had upwards of $15K worth of camera and editing gear insured through a "personal articles policy" with State Farm. Do you know how much I paid on a monthly basis to have that peace of mind? $10 a month. And the policy covered theft, loss, and damage (even if I was the responsible party). Having that coverage was a no-brainer. And because of it, I never had to jeopardize a relationship with a client over equipment that was damaged, and I never had to cancel a gig because I couldn't afford to replace broken gear.
But let's say you have no insurance and your client smashes your camera to bits. Let's also assume that your relationship with the client is beyond saving and you're willing to litigate. From my seat, there are two legal options. If you can't prove that your client maliciously destroyed your property but he/she is clearly to blame for its demise, you could sue for damages under a simple run-of-the-mill negligence claim. Even if the damage was done by the client's employee as opposed to the client him/herself, the client will still be liable for it (in tort law, respondeat superior makes the actions of an employee attributable to the employer).
On the other hand, if you have some proof that the client (or the client's employee) willfully and maliciously destroyed your equipment? You could sue under the intentional tort of trespass to chattels, otherwise known as vandalism.
The problem with litigation, of course, is the cost. Not just in litigation fees, but in time. An average lawsuit can take years to litigate and cost tens of thousands of dollars. It's a serious investment that can get even more serious if you lose. That's not even mentioning the emotional and creative suckage it causes. And if you're a small-business owner or struggling artist, do you really want a lawsuit taking up space in your brain when it could be filled with creative stuff instead? I spoke before about sweating the business stuff, and I think insurance is no.1 or no.2 on the list of smart, cheap things that will help your business in the short and long run.