Who pays for property damage caused from a tree falling during a storm is not necessarily cut and dried. Local insurance agents said there is a lot of factors to consider before a claim is filed.
“It can be a murky situation, especially when you get property lines involved,” said Mike Blaue, American Family Insurance agent, 1408 S. Main St., Ottawa. “It can become a major [situation] if you get a couple of different parties involved and if they have not taken care of their trees. Most of the time, if it is a wind-driven storm and a limb breaks off a tree or a tree falls on a house, it is covered. If it is a tree that is dead for a number of years and they have not done anything, then sometimes we can try to deny coverage.”
Keith King, State Farm Insurance agent, 111 S. Main St., Ottawa, said there are different factors to consider when reviewing a tree damage case.
“If a tree falls, it depends on what it damages,” he said. “Did it fall on somebody else’s car or your own property? Was the tree alive or dead [may] come into play. It is a case-by-case basis. We look into all of them before we make the final decision.”
Many times property owners are not aware of who is responsible for the damage, King said.
“A lot people call and say ‘your customer’s tree fell on my fence and we need to turn in a claim,’” he said. “We explain to them how it works. You need to turn that into your insurance company and if they feel the need to have a claim against us they will let us know.”
King said it is the property owner’s responsibility to take care of their trees and trim limbs back from the house.
“People who are proactive and keep their trees trimmed — so it is not over the top of the house and not fall on it — they are doing the right thing,” he said. “Not everybody does that. There are ways to avoid it if they take the time to maintain the trees.”
Blaue said trees that provide shade and beauty to a property — and there are many throughout Ottawa, designated a Tree City USA by the Arbor Day Foundation — can become a nuisance from an insurer’s perspective.
“The problem with trees are they grow at such a astronomical rate, especially if we have a wet spring,” he said. “The city can’t keep up keeping them out of the power lines. What makes you think a homeowner — who has no experience cutting trees — can keep them off their house. That is usually the issue that happens. You look up at the tree and say ‘that is not very close to my house.’ You look back two or three years later, it is almost laying on it.”
Insurance companies can cancel a homeowner’s policy if tree limbs are deemed too close to a house, Blaue said.
“If we have had a review of that property and if their trees are actually laying on the roof, we give them time to get that situation corrected,” Blaue said. “If they choose not to do it, we go on and say ‘sorry, we can’t provide coverage any longer.’ It costs a lot to get a tree trimmed.”
King said the first question that needs to be answered is whether the tree was dead or alive when it caused the damage.
“You can tell a dead tree from a live tree fairly easily,” he said. “I will go out there right away and get pictures if there is a dispute, so I can document it before it gets moved.”
Blaue said he has seen where a horticulturist was called to determine if a tree was dead or alive before it fell.
“I have had people say lightning struck a tree and that was the reason for the fall,” Blaue said. “You can tell pretty obviously if a tree has been struck by lightning.”
AAA Kansas released general tips on how insurance coverage works with property damage caused by storms.
• Physical damage to a vehicle caused by heavy wind or fallen tree limbs is covered under the optional comprehensive portion of an auto policy.
• If your vehicle is damaged by a fallen tree or limbs, you would need to file a claim using your vehicle policy’s comprehensive coverage.
• If your tree falls on your house, your insurance will cover removal of the tree and home repairs due to damage.
• If your tree falls on your neighbor’s house, your neighbor’s homeowner’s policy would provide insurance coverage. The same holds true if your neighbor’s tree falls on your home; you would file a claim with your own insurance company.
• If a tree falls in your yard, but doesn’t hit anything, you would pay for its removal in most cases.
• If a tree on your property is weak, damaged, or decayed, but you do nothing about it, and it crashes down on a neighbor’s home (or vehicle), you could be held liable for damages.