Trees, neighbors and insurance coverage: What you need to know when nature strikes and your homeowner’s insurance gives you the runaround.
Over the past few weeks, we’ve received a number of letters on our recent column about trees, neighbors and insurance coverage.
A reader wrote in that a tree fell on his neighbor’s garage and the neighbor’s insurance refused to pay the claim. That left the homeowner to file a claim with his own insurance company.
Here is a sample of some of the comments and questions we received.
Compromised Trees, Careless Neighbors, and Insurance Claims
Q: I own a vacation home not far from the beach. My neighbor has a very large hickory tree. A large branch came off of the tree last summer and the tree is now compromised. I’m concerned that in a bad storm the tree will fall on my property.
I’ve offered to pay to cut it down and my neighbor emphatically rejected that idea. But I had a licensed arborist come out to inspect the tree and he agrees with me that there is a real threat.
We think that when a storm comes, the tree will fall. I was told by a friend that I can force my neighbor to notify her insurance company, so when the tree falls and destroys my house, her insurance will cover it.
Q: What if the neighbor’s tree that fell on your garage was not properly maintained? In other words, what if the tree was dead or dying from a disease and branches had been falling from it for months or years before it finally fell on my garage? Wouldn’t a normal person expect his neighbor to perform normal maintenance on the tree and remove any unsafe condition? And, in this case would not the neighbor and/or his insurance be liable for the repairs to my garage?
Q: In the last five years, my neighbor’s tree branches have fallen on my property due to storms coming through the area and caused damage that the insurance company has paid to fix.
However, the more serious issue is that the tree’s roots have grown under my fence, across the property line onto my property, and the tree roots are causing significant damage to my concrete sidewalk. The tree and its roots need to be removed before the tree falls and causes even greater storm damage to my property. Can I ask my neighbor to remove the tree and its roots and if he says no, and we get another major storm and the tree falls, can I get him or his insurance company to pay to repair the damage?
Q: I have a neighbor who has a dead (or, maybe it’s dying) tree and I’ve put him on notice that it could fall on my home. I’ve documented that notice so if the tree does fall on my home he would be legally liable for my damages because he took no action to correct the hazardous condition.
Having the potential of falling due to disease, rot or really any other reason that could be predicted or expected makes me feel like my neighbor should be responsible. What do you think?
What to Expect When a Tree Does Fall
A: As climate change gets worse, more homeowners are experiencing storm damage, much of it caused by trees falling. And as storms get stronger, and flooding gets more intense in various parts of the country, it’s likely this issue will only get worse.
It’s clear that many of our correspondents believe that when a neighbor’s tree falls on their property, the neighbor should pay for the damage. And, in some cases, that’s true. But not always.
Let’s start by talking about healthy trees located in a backyard. When a healthy tree falls over during a storm, there is little a neighbor could have done to prevent the tree from falling over. The cause of the tree falling was the storm. In this situation, it’s not really fair to blame the tree’s owner for the damage caused by the tree.
Most homeowners love neighborhoods with mature tall trees. Having mature trees raises the value of property, according to the National Association of Realtors. We live in a neighborhood with huge trees and see those mature trees as a draw and promote the planting of trees in parkways and yards.
But, trees fall. And since everyone is hesitant to make a claim against their own homeowners insurance policy, often neighbors will point the finger at each other.
Insurance Claims When a Tree Comes Down
Insurance companies view their responsibility with the lens of whether their customer was at fault. In the example of a storm uprooting trees, the insurance company might say that the storm caused the damage and not the neighbor so the tree owner’s insurance will decline coverage and payment. On the other hand, if the tree’s owner knows that the tree is dead, diseased or ready to come down for one reason or another, that homeowner has an obligation to care for his or her property, including its trees. When that tree comes down in a storm and the homeowner is found to have neglected taking care of it, the neighbor would be at fault for not trimming or removing the tree.
When the tree owner is at fault, the tree owner’s insurance company likely will have to pay for the damage caused by the tree. On the Allstate insurance and Farmers Insurance websites there is a page dedicated to questions and answers relating to when a tree falls and which insurance coverage will apply. Clearly, as climate change is causing stronger storms, more trees are falling and insurance companies have recognized the importance of helping their policy holders recognize where responsibility lies.
At the end of the day, you need to be responsible for your own property, including hard and soft landscaping – and that includes trees. If you don’t maintain your trees, you may well have liability to your neighbor if one of your trees falls on your neighbor’s property.
When you have a concern about a neighbor’s tree, and bring it to your neighbor’s attention, we’d hope that as good neighbors, the tree owner would take care of the tree issue. When that doesn’t happen, you might have to write a letter to the neighbor officially documenting the problem. In some communities, you can report tree issues to your local governmental arborist that can then notify the owner of the problem.
Lastly, when it comes to tree roots and the issues caused by overgrown trees, stay tuned. We’ll tackle that subject in a future column.