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Thanksgiving: How insurance covers a cornucopia of feast fiascos

By Posted : November 8, 2017

child's hand drawn turkey

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Thanksgiving Day is typically a chance to carve out some quality time to eat, drink and be merry with family and friends, but if your feast goes foul, knowing what your home insurance covers will help.

While nobody expects their holiday party to go up in flames, or to have food poisoning on the menu or have a guest be injured, but these things can -- and do --  happen. Thanksgiving and holiday parties can be ripe with risk for the host.

Let’s take a look at some of the most common Thanksgiving and holiday party mishaps and review the role insurance plays in covering a cornucopia of calamities.

When Butterballs become fireballs

According to the most current data from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Thanksgiving was by far the peak day in 2014 for home fires that involved cooking equipment. There were 1,730 fires on Thanksgiving, which is almost four times the number of fires on an average day and over double the number of fires at Christmas (780).

Fryers result in about 1,000 emergency fire calls each year according to NFPA data, causing about $15 million in damage each year.

Unattended stoves cause plenty of problems as well. From 2010 to 2014 there were 166,100 home fires each year that were caused by cooking, according to NFPA data. These fires caused over $1.1 billion in property damage and ranges or cooktops were responsible for 62 percent of these fires.

Regardless of how the fire starts, it can quickly spread out of control, damaging your house. If that happens, the dwelling coverage portion of your home insurance policy  pays for the damage up to the limit you have.

When buying homeowners insurance, you should get enough dwelling coverage to match the full replacement cost of your home. The cost to repair damage to your home or rebuild it completely at equal quality — at current prices – is the replacement cost.

Increasing your dwelling coverage is typically very affordable. For example, a home insurance rate analysis by Insurance.com shows that bumping up your dwelling limits from $200,000 to $300,000 costs just $493 more, on average, for a policy with a $1,000 deductible and $300,000 in liability.To get an idea of what your cost would be to increase dwelling and liability limits with various deductibles, use our average home insurance rates tool that shows premiums by ZIP code for 75 different coverage levels.


Toxic turkey: Is food poisoning covered by home insurance?

If it’s your turn to host Thanksgiving dinner or you throw an annual holiday party, you are taking a risk as the host. If the food you serve gives a guest food poisoning or one of your party-goers has too much to drink and causes an accident after leaving your home, you may be liable for the medical bills or repair costs.

"All hosts should be aware that if someone drives drunk or becomes sick after consuming food at a holiday party, the host could actually be liable," says Robert Rusbuldt, CEO of Independent Insurance Agents & Brokers of America (IIABA).

While there are no Thanksgiving-specific statistics on food poisoning, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that food-borne diseases make one in six Americans, or 48 million people, ill each year. These illnesses hospitalize 128,000 people and kill 3,000.

If you do manage to poison your guests with tainted food, a standard homeowners’ policy – the medical payments portion -- typically pays for the cost of a trip to an emergency room. Medical expenses pay for the services for those injured in your home, up to your limits, which is typcially $5,000. Liability kicks in if medical expenses incurred go beyond that, and if the guest sues.

And, you should be giving thanks that the liability portion of your home insurance policy kicks in to help cover expenses from lawsuits filed against you.

Liability insurance provides a financial safety net for the household. It covers:

  • Medical expenses of people who are hurt while in your home or on your property
  • Damage you cause to a neighbor’s property. Personal liability also covers
  • Legal fees if you are sued, as well as any resulting judgments from a lawsuit, up to your policy limits

“Your homeowners insurance policy will generally protect you up to a minimum of $100,000 in liability coverage if anyone decides to take legal action,” says Loretta Worters, spokesperson for the Insurance Information Institute (III). "If your guest gets sick and sues you for damages, your insurer will pay for your legal expenses for a resulting lawsuit, even if the suit is groundless."

Unfortunately, if you are not carrying enough liability insurance, you will need to get your checkbook out as you will be on the hook for the balance once your coverage limits are reached, says Travis Biggert, with HUB International.

“Personal liability insurance is incredibly affordable,” says Biggert. “We recommend base limits starting at $300,000 on your homeowners policy with a $1 million umbrella policy which will kick in when your personal liability limits are reached.”

For example, a home insurance rate analysis by Insurance.com shows that bumping up your liability limits from $100,000 to $300,000 costs just $16 more, on average, for a policy with $200,000 in dwelling coverage and a $1,000 deductible. For $500,000 of liability it’s only $27 extra.

For a policy with $200,000 in dwelling coverage and a $1,000 deductible:

  • $1,228, national yearly average home insurance with $100,000 in liability
  • $1,244; national yearly average home insurance with $300,000 in liability
  • $1,255; national yearly average home insurance with $500,000 in liability

Too much Wild Turkey? Your liability if your guests imbibe too much

Even more deadly than food poisoning is drunken driving which is a major risk factor for party hosts. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), on average, 728 people will be injured or killed each day between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day in drunk driving accidents. This rate is two to three times higher than the rest of the year.

If you over serve a guest, the damage they do can end up coming back to you. Most states now have social host liability laws in place, which can hold hosts liable for any property damage caused by their intoxicated guests. This can range from something minor, like a mailbox being run over to much more serious offenses.

“Social host liability laws vary widely from state to state, but most of these laws offer an injured person, like the victim of a drunk driver, a method to sue the person who served the alcohol,” explains Worters. “While a social host is not liable for injuries sustained by a drunken guest (as the guest is also negligent), the host can be held liable for harm to third parties, and even passengers of the guest who have been injured in their car,” says Worters.

Finally, be aware that you can also be liable if a guest trips, falls or is otherwise injured in your home or on the walk up your driveway. Clear any snow and ice off of sidewalks and clear out the clutter in your home to prevent falls. The medical expenses, then liability coverage, of your home insurance also pays up to your limits for medical costs of those injured in your home or on your property.

How do I minimize my risk? Know the law and review your home policy

Hopefully we haven’t scared you out of having a holiday party. Taking a few precautions should ensure that your guests get home safe and you don’t find yourself on the wrong end of a lawsuit.

Social host liability laws vary by state. Be aware of your local "social host liability" statutes to make sure you are not breaking your local laws and determine where you liability lies.

Insurance coverage can vary when it comes to social host liability laws. “Many homeowners insurance policies either explicitly protect or explicitly deny protection for  social host liability, and many times if they do protect, they will limit the coverage to $100,000 per person and $300,000 per incident,” advises Michael Rehm with the Law Office of Michael Rehm.

In addition, it’s possible that your homeowners policy will not cover any issues related to drunken guests getting behind the wheel. “Many homeowners policies also deny coverage due to a motor vehicle exception found in many homeowners policies. Specifically, any personal injuries sustained as a result of a motor vehicle accident are not protected by the policy,” says Rehm.

Check with your insurance agent about specific risks and coverage levels. While your insurance should cover medical bills and the cost of any resulting lawsuits, it only does so up to your coverage limits. Review your policy coverage levels to make sure you are fully protected.

“Most agents suggest carrying at least $300,000 to $500,000 of liability protection, depending on the value of your assets,” explains Worters. “The III also advises another $1 million in umbrella insurance coverage. An umbrella policy takes effect when you've reached the limit on the underlying liability coverage in a homeowners, policy. A $1 million umbrella policy costs roughly $150 to $300 a year,” says Worters. 

A feast of fun Thanksgiving facts, served up by the U.S. Census Bureau:

4 -- The number of places in the United States named after the holiday’s traditional main course. Turkey Creek census designated place in Arizona, had 405 residents in 2015, followed by Turkey city, Texas (367); Turkey Creek village, La. (357); and Turkey town, N.C. (280). There are also 11 townships in the United States with “Turkey” in the name. (Please note that the populations of Turkey Creek census designated place, Ariz.; Turkey city, Texas; Turkey Creek village, La.; and Turkey town, N.C., are not significantly different from each other.)

4 -- The number of places and townships in the United States named Cranberry, a popular side dish at Thanksgiving. Cranberry township (Butler County), Pa., was the most populous of these places in 2016, with 30,739 residents. Cranberry township (Venango County), Pa., was next with 6,452 residents.

244.0 million -- The forecasted number of turkeys raised in the United States in 2016. That is up 4.5 percent from the number raised during 2015.

44.5 million -- The forecasted number of turkeys raised in Minnesota in 2016. Minnesota topped in turkey production, followed by North Carolina (33.5 million), Arkansas (26.0 million), Indiana (19.5 million), Missouri (19.2 million) and Virginia (17.2 million).

859.0 million pounds -- The forecasted weight of cranberries produced in the United States in 2016. Wisconsin was estimated to lead all states in the production of cranberries, with 521.0 million pounds, followed by Massachusetts (estimated at 207.0 million pounds). New Jersey, Oregon and Washington were also estimated to have substantial production, ranging from 19.4 to 58.8 million pounds.

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