If you've ever seen a fallen tree in the aftermath of a storm, you'll know how much damage they can cause. They smash through roofs, walls and fences. Sometimes, they flatten a car.
And it's not just storms that bring down trees. Sometimes construction work, dry weather, or simple old age can cause a fall. It happens more frequently that you think. And the bigger they are, the harder they fall!
We hope it never happens to you. But it does lead to the question: Who is liable if a tree falls on your property or your car -- or someone else's?
The issue is not always straightforward.
First, it depends on who owns the tree; and ownership is defined by where the tree trunk is, not where the branches overhang. If it straddles two properties, it's usually regarded as jointly owned.
Second, it may depend on who or what caused the tree to fall, as we explain below.
However, one certainty is that the cost of putting right the damage can be high. Although the average insurance settlement for tree fall claims is a little over $4,000, sometimes they can run into tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. And there may be additional expenses of having the tree sawn up and removed.
Meeting that cost is generally down to insurance coverage. If the person who is liable for the incident is uninsured, there's the possibility of having to take out a lawsuit to recover the cost.
Let's take a closer look at possible scenarios:
It’s your tree and it's your property or car that's damaged
If you have homeowners insurance your home would be covered under the structural insurance element of your policy. This might be subject to the limits of coverage set out in your policy and any deductible you have to pay yourself.
The insurer would probably also want to know the fall wasn't due to any negligence on your part, or caused by a contractor. If you're held to be negligent, your policy may not cover this (though many policies do). You should check this in the wording of your policy or with your agent.
Damage to your car would most likely be covered by the comprehensive coverage section of your auto insurance. If you don’t have this coverage -- it's not legally required -- you're probably out of luck.
It's your tree but it damages someone else's home or car
This is where liability insurance may, under certain circumstances, come into play. But in most cases, if the fall was caused by something beyond your control -- a windstorm for example -- you shouldn’t be held liable. But if it was the result of your activities or negligence, you could be regarded as liable.
Because the cause may be open to dispute, you could be on the receiving end of a lawsuit. If you have homeowners insurance, your legal costs should be covered regardless of the outcome of any court action.
Again, not all homeowners policies will pay if you are shown to be negligent -- for example, by failing to remove an obviously weak tree limb. Check this in the wording of your policy or with your agent.
Liability insurance is a key part of a homeowners policy. Coverage normally starts at a limit of around $100,000 but high costs of damage and legal representation would soon eat this up. These days, experts say you should have liability coverage for between $300,000 and $500,000.
As with homeowners insurance, so with auto insurance. If someone's car is damaged by your tree, it's their responsibility to claim on their own auto policy if they have comprehensive coverage.
The tree belongs to someone else but damages your property or car
This is kind of the reverse of the situation outlined above. The outcome hinges on whether the tree was brought down by natural forces -- or "act of God" as it's sometimes called. In this case, you will most likely need to claim under the structural coverage of your homeowners policy, and the comprehensive coverage of your auto policy.
If, however, it can be shown that the tree fall was caused by something the owner did, or negligently failed to do, you can usually make a liability claim against their insurer. If they’re uninsured, you'll likely have to sue them.
What if the incident was caused by a contractor?
This can happen because contractors sometimes disturb the ground they're digging or working on. It could, for example, be a builder, an arborist or a utility company.
In most cases, the contractor would probably be held liable for any damage caused. However, as far as possible, you should try to check the insurance coverage of anyone who happens to be working in or near your property.
What to do if it happens to you
If there is a fall, in all cases, you should tell your insurance company as soon as possible, regardless of who you think was to blame. Don't organize repairs until they have responded, unless you need to do so for safety reasons.
Take photos of any damage that has been caused. If it's a neighbor's home, seek their permission if you need to go on their property.
If you're liable or the fall was on your own property, make sure you have multiple quotes for the necessary repair work. If the cost is low enough, you may want to pay out of your own pocket rather than risk an increase in your home or auto insurance premiums.
What to do before it happens
As a precaution, because of the issue of potential negligence, you should keep a record of any complaints you have made to other owners about potential dangers posed by their trees. Ideally, put your complaints in writing, but at least document your complaints.
If there's a fall and you don’t have homeowners insurance, you could be in serious financial trouble. Even if the incident is not your fault, you could still face sizeable legal bills to defend your position.
For this reason, we encourage all owners to be properly protected both for the structure of their homes and for liability. Likewise, it's prudent to ensure you have comprehensive coverage in your auto policy.
If you have questions or need to arrange coverage, please speak to the experts at Equity Insurance Group.
Note: This article is provided for information only and does not constitute legal or other advice. You should consult a relevant professional, such as an attorney or you insurer for appropriate advice.