Insurance

Who’s to blame when a tree comes down? The answer defies common sense

Springtime means thunderstorms and high, gusty winds.  Sometimes those winds bring down trees. And sometimes those trees land on your stuff!

The damages caused by such an accident are covered under your home policy – which is nice. However, your deductible applies, and that means money out of your pocket. Plus, it puts a claim on your record, which could affect your future rates and eligibility for insurance.

With that in mind, what if your neighbor’s tree falls on your property?  It doesn’t seem fair that you should put a claim on your policy and pay your deductible out of pocket, does it?  After all, it’s HIS tree!

Here’s a phone call we’ve had many times with our clients…  “Hey, my neighbor’s tree fell on my property. He’s responsible for that, right?  The unfortunate answer…probably not.

Warning:  Insurance Content

Generally speaking, responsibility for damages in an insurance claim comes down to a question of negligence. The negligent party is responsible for what happened.

For example, the guy who runs a red light and causes a car accident is responsible for the damages because he was negligent when he ignored the traffic signal. In real life, it may not be that black and white, but you get the idea.

But what about when the wind blows a tree over? Things are definitely not cut and dry now! (Leaf pun intended!)  Think about this…

There’s a tree standing in your neighbor’s yard. Here comes the wind, and now the tree is laying in your yard. Your fence is broken, and your shed is smashed. Can your neighbor or anyone else be found negligent on behalf of the wind?

Live Trees Versus Dead Trees

An argument can be made – and has been made many, many times – that there’s a difference between live trees and dead trees. No, not the difference of one being alive and the other not, smarty pants. I mean the potential for negligence to apply differently depending on the tree’s health.

Clearly, if a live, healthy tree falls over, who could have seen that coming? But what about a dead tree? What about one that’s been dead for quite a while now? Every day that tree remains upright it poses a greater and greater threat of falling over. Surely, the tree’s owner can see THAT coming, right? Wouldn’t a conscientious person cut that tree down to remove the hazard? And, if they don’t cut it down, is that negligence? Are they responsible for the damages that tree causes when it falls?

I’d love to answer with a resounding, YES!  Because it’s common sense, isn’t it? The dead tree poses a hazard. If the property owner doesn’t cut it down they are negligent in their “non-action”, right?

Common Sense And The Law Don’t Mix

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple for the courts or for insurance companies. Based on past court decisions, the insurance company knows they can’t win that argument. Your neighbor won’t be found negligent for a tree that falls over, even a dead one. Even though it makes perfect sense to the rest of us, the courts don’t agree.

But wait … there’s something you CAN do to protect yourself.

What To Do About Dead Trees That Threaten Your Property

First, if you’re the owner of the dead tree – or any tree that’s unstable in any way – cut it down. Don’t wait any longer. Get it taken care of. A dead or unstable tree is a hazard to both property and people. The last thing any of us wants is someone to be badly injured, or even killed, by a falling tree … especially a tree that should have been removed long ago.

Second, if the offending tree is in your neighbor’s yard, the claims department recommends the following.

Start with the neighborly approach. Talk to your neighbor and explain your concerns. See what they say. Most people are reasonable, and they may get on it right away. Problem solved. If you’re so inclined, you may even want to chip in on the removal cost.

If talking gets you nowhere, put it in writing. Put your concerns in a letter, keep a copy for your records and give it to your neighbor. If something does happen, you have proof that you pointed out the hazard to your neighbor. And since your neighbor refused to act on that knowledge, it’s much more likely he’ll be considered negligent, and, therefore, be responsible for the damages to your property.

If you’re really motivated, you can also contact your municipal authorities. You may be able to convince them that the hazard the tree creates is so dangerous that they will require your neighbor to have it removed. Nobody likes strained relationships with their neighbors. But nobody wants to be crushed by a falling tree, either. Which is worse?

What About Live Trees?

Forget about live trees. You’ll never convince a court that your neighbor was negligent by not cutting down a live, healthy tree.

If a live tree falls from your neighbor’s property onto yours, just accept it as an act of nature. Stuff happens. Yes, it stinks, but it’s nobody’s fault. And the good news is your home insurance covers it.

Why Won’t The Insurance Company Cut Down My Tree For Me?

You can’t have a discussion about falling or hazardous trees without somebody smugly bringing up this point. It sounds like this…

“If this tree falls it will cause a lot of damage, say $20,000 worth. It will only cost $1,000 to cut it down. I’d think the insurance company would rather spend $1,000 to prevent the accident than spend $20,000 after it happens. Hah!” Yeah. Nice try.

Your insurance protects you against sudden and unforeseen events. That’s the nature of insurance. You are responsible for the maintenance of your property. If you buy the tree argument above then why wouldn’t the insurance company also replace the brakes on my car for me before I rear-end someone? Or replace the bald tires that are guaranteed to cause me to slide in the next rain storm? Or fix the leak in my upstairs toilet before the pipe bursts and really causes some damage? Where would you draw the line? And who would make that decision? Insurance companies drew the line long ago. And they won’t be budging on it anytime soon! You are responsible for maintenance. They will pay when accidents happen.

In summary, remove dead trees promptly. Compel your neighbor to do the same. Put it in writing if you have to, and keep a copy just in case his tree winds up in your yard.