Sometimes, a tree falls in a forest and someone does hear it. Or, it falls onto your neighbor's property and damages something. When that happens, their homeowners insurance company will usually be the one to hear about it.
Dr. Robert Hartwig, President of the Insurance Information Institute (III) knows first-hand how homeowners insurance can become involved when one of your trees falls on a neighbor's property.
If one of your trees falls and damages a neighbor's property, "generally speaking, it is your neighbor's insurance policy that is called upon to pay the damage," points out Hartwig. "Since his insurance is being impacted," Hartwig continued, "you probably won't face an insurance premium increase as a result."
However, "your neighbor could come after you to cover his deductible. Matter of fact, when one of my trees fell on my neighbor's fence, it destroyed some of his fence and damaged fruit trees. In the interest of neighborly relations, I voluntarily paid for a new pear tree, so between what the insurer paid and what I paid, he didn't have any out-of-pocket expense," says Hartwig.
The upshot? "My neighbor and I are still on speaking terms, which is a good thing. I paid for the new fruit tree, because I thought it was the right thing to do, although I was not obligated to do that." Hartwig's story underlines the fact that, in general, your neighbor's insurance covers your neighbor's property. However, although you and your insurance company may not legally have to make a payment, it's usually best to maintain good relations with those around you.
The major exception to the rule of thumb that your neighbor's insurance will pay is the case of negligence on your part. If your tree was dead or diseased, and a judgment or settlement finds that you knew or should have known about that, you could be legally liable for the damages. This is especially true if your neighbor has documentation proving that he or she complained to you or the city about the state of your tree.
Section two of most homeowners insurance policies covers liability, including the cost to defend you in a lawsuit. Your neighbor could submit a claim to your insurance company if they believe you are at fault. If your neighbor sues you, claiming that you were negligent in failing to take care of your tree, your insurance company will pay to defend your case, and will pay for damages if you're responsible. The cost of legal defense is in addition to policy liability limits, although the amount of damage paid for is subject to these limits.
To avoid this situation, have your trees trimmed and inspected periodically to make sure they're not dead or falling down. If you're worried about trees on your property falling during a storm, have them trimmed or removed. If you are concerned about a neighbor's tree, write a polite letter to your neighbor and/or the city. Although that may cause a disagreement, it's easier than trimming the tree yourself, which is often your legal right.
Another option under your own homeowners insurance policy is the Damage to Property of Others coverage in the Other Coverages portion of the liability section. This coverage does not have a deductible and it can be used without a judgment or admission of legal liability, which can help speed up the payment process. The amount of coverage for Damage to Property of Others, typically $1,000, is in addition to the policy's liability limits. However, remember that using your own insurance constitutes a claim against it and a possible premium increase. Therefore, only use this type of coverage if you can't afford to pay for the damage yourself.
If your tree falls on your neighbor's porch, your neighbor's homeowners insurance will usually pay for the damage. However, remember that each area has different laws, and each policy has exclusions explaining what is not covered.