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When A Tree Falls, Who Pays?

Here in the Northeast, the perfect combination of soggy ground and high winds recently caused countless trees to come down.  And plenty of those trees landed on houses and cars which prompts the age-old question: When a tree falls and damages property, who pays?

We’ll start by introducing you to a term that you can throw around at dinner parties if you want to sound smarter: Force Majeure.  This is legal speak for something that is considered an Act of God.  In other words, something that is outside of human control.  In this case, a tree being ripped from its roots during a storm meets the standard for Force Majeure.  For the scenarios that follow, we are assuming a Force Majeure or Act of God situation.

Scenario 1: My neighbor’s tree damages my house

If your neighbors tree falls on and damages your house, they are not responsible.  At least from an insurance perspective.  Your homeowners insurance would cover the cost of the repairs minus whatever your deductible is.  You can find out how much your deductible is by checking out the declaration page of your insurance policy.

The same would be true if your neighbor’s tree falls and damages other property like your fence, garage, pool equipment or oversized concrete swan sculpture.

While this may seem strange, it is important to remember that the insurance is on the house, not the tree.  So the owner of the damaged property pays.  Yep, that’s you.

But, you say, my neighbor should have cut down that diseased tree long ago!  It’s his fault! Unfortunately, that argument typically will not hold up.  Proving negligence in a case like this is very difficult.

That being said, if your neighbor has a tree that looks unhealthy and is a source of concern, talk to him about it before something happens.  You can’t force someone to cut down a tree, but you can certainly bring it to your neighbor’s attention.  If he doesn’t respond, consider sending a certificated letter.  This could help prove negligence if something does happen down the line.

Scenario 2: My neighbor’s tree damages my car

If your neighbors tree falls and damages your car, the scenario remains the same.  You are responsible for the cost of repairs.  In this case, the comprehensive coverage of your auto policy (minus your deductible) would pay.

It’s worth noting that comprehensive coverage is an option on your auto policy so make sure you have it.  Comprehensive coverage pays for damage not caused by a collision like theft, animals, hail, and, in this case, trees.  If you do not have comprehensive coverage, there will be no pay out for the damage done to your vehicle in this scenario.

Are you scurrying to find a copy of your auto policy to check for comprehensive coverage?

Once you find it, take a moment to make sure you have replacement value on your car as well.  Replacement value means that the insurance company will compensate you for the cost of a new car in the same make and model.  If you do not have this coverage, the insurance company will only pay market value.  If your car is relatively new, electing replacement value is crucial.

Scenario 3: My tree damages my neighbor’s house

If you’ve read the first 500+ words of this blog, you can probably already guess what happens when your tree falls on your neighbor’s house.  Yep, you’ve got it.  His homeowners insurance would cover the cost of repairs minus whatever the deductible is.

This time, you win!

But in all seriousness, if you recall a small feeling of injustice when you read that you would be responsible for the deductible in Scenario 1 (above), consider helping your neighbor pay at least part of his deductible.  You are not obligated to do so, but it’s a move that can go a long way with humans you probably see every day.  This is especially true if you know you have not properly maintained the trees on your property.

Scenario 4: My tree damages my neighbors car

You can probably finish the blog for me at this point, right?  But just in case….   If your tree falls on your neighbor’s car, their auto policy covers the repairs.  All the same rules apply with regard to comprehensive coverage and replacement value mentioned above, but this time, it’s not your problem.

Remember, however, that your neighbor is responsible for paying his deductible.  As such, you might offer to cover at least a portion of the deductible simply for the sake of good human will.

Force Majeure, Revisited

Let’s talk about this a little bit more just because it makes use sound so darn smart.  Plus, it’s worth understanding what is NOT considered Force Majeure when it comes to tree damage.

The key to deciding what is considered an Act of God is control.  Could a human being reasonably have controlled what happened?  When it comes trees that fall as the result of a storm, the fairly well-established answer is no.

But let’s say you and a couple friends decide to chop down the oversized pine that’s been dropping sticky needles in your yard since prehistoric times.  And in doing so, the tree falls on your neighbor’s house or car.  Or swan statue.

In this scenario, Force Majeure would not apply.  You, not an Act of God, caused the tree to fall and damage your neighbor’s house, so your insurance would pay.  And you would be responsible for the deductible.

When a Tree Falls: Are You Prepared?

Unfortunately, most people don’t give much thought to scenarios like these until something bad happens.  But taking half an hour to go over your insurance policy with an agent can pay huge dividends.  When you call, consider the following:

  1. Make sure you know how much your deductible is be certain it is an amount you can cover in the case of a claim.
  2. Check for comprehensive coverage & replacement value coverage on your auto policy.
  3. Ask the agent to review your limits for debris removal as the cost to simple remove a fallen tree before the property can be repaired often exceeds standard limits.

So go.  Now. While it’s fresh in your mind.  Find your policy and call an independent agent, like Element Risk, that offers free policy reviews.