Responsibility for damage caused by falling trees is a subject fraught with confusion
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The philosophers wanted to know what happens when a tree falls in a forest. Modern-day homeowners are more worried about the legal and financial consequences of a tree falling on their house or car.
There's hardly a topic related to insurance that causes more confusion than the question of who is responsible for damage caused by trees.
Many people are surprised to find out that when a neighbor's tree falls on their house or car, it is their own insurance -- not their neighbor's insurance -- that pays for the damage.
"It's most often your problem, not your neighbor's," said Janet Scott-Buckley, an insurance agent at Harrington Insurance Agency, in North Andover, Mass. "You have to file a claim with your homeowners insurance company, and the usual deductible applies.
"Unfortunately, tree falls can cause friction between neighbors because of the lack of understanding of who is responsible for paying for the damages."
Likewise, you're generally not responsible for any damage that your falling tree causes to your neighbor's property. However, some exceptions apply, Ms. Scott-Buckley explained.
"Let's say your neighbor's tree is rotted and in danger of falling," she said. "You asked your neighbor to remove it, and the neighbor refused. One day it topples and hits your house. Then you'd have a good case that your neighbor is responsible for the damages."
Ms. Scott-Buckley said you would need a copy of your letter to your neighbor. Having photos and a tree specialist's opinion would bolster your case even more. Your neighbor's home insurance company might agree to pay for all the damage to your property plus cleanup costs. In that scenario, there would be no out-of-pocket deductible on your part.
Terry McConnell, vice president of personal lines underwriting at Erie-based Erie Insurance Co., said weather conditions in this region make tree damage a common hazard.
"As we are heading into the winter months, when we're hit with heavy snow and ice storms, it's important to make sure your trees are properly trimmed and maintained," Mr. McConnell said. "A storm, high winds or ice could come through your neighborhood and knock branches onto your home, causing serious damage."
Coverage for tree falls is provided under most homeowners policies when it occurs because of a storm, wind or lightning.
According to Dave Phillips, a spokesman at State Farm Insurance Co., in Concordville, Delaware County, if a tree falls in your yard and does not strike anything, there is no coverage.
The tree must strike an insured structure or property, such as the house, garage, fence or carport. In some instances, removal may be provided if a fallen tree blocks access to a home or driveway. But a deductible would apply.
What about the cost of replacing damaged trees, shrubs and other plants?
There's usually no coverage for wind damage, but fire, lightning, vandalism and theft usually are covered, Ms. Scott-Buckley said, adding that coverage for damaged trees, shrubs and other plants typically is limited to 5 percent of the amount of the insured value of your house up to $500 per tree or plant.
When it comes to auto damage from tree falls, Ms. Scott-Buckley said, insurance rules get a bit more tricky.
Damage to your car from falling trees or tree limbs is covered under the "comprehensive" part of your auto insurance policy -- if you've purchased that coverage. Comprehensive auto coverage also protects you for damages from fire and theft.
But if you drive into a tree or limb, the damage to your car will be covered by your own collision insurance.
If someone runs off the road and severely damages your trees or shrubs, the vehicle owner's auto insurance should pay for the damages. But if you do the same to your own property, your own auto policy probably won't cover damages to your trees and shrubs.
First Published November 23, 2012 2:45 pm