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Thanksgiving 2018: How insurance covers a cornucopia of feast fiascos

By Posted : November 14, 2018

 turkey fry safety tipsThanksgiving Day is a time to celebrate with family and friends, a chance to carve out some quality time to eat, drink and be merry. Unfortunately, it can also be a time of fires, slips and falls, or even food poisoning. If your feast goes foul, knowing what your home insurance covers will help.

Nobody ever expects their Thanksgiving celebration to result in a call to the fire department or the poison hotline, but it does happen and unless you are properly protected by homeowners insurance, Thanksgiving could end up costing much more than the price of a turkey and fixings.

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

Thanksgiving is always a busy day for firefighters. In fact, Thanksgiving is so fire prone it grabs the number one and two spot. It is the busiest day for home cooking fires and the day before Thanksgiving ranks number two, Christmas day rounds out the top three according to National Fire Protection Association.

According to data from the U.S. Fire Administration there were an estimated 2,400 residential building fires on Thanksgiving Day every year between 2014 and 2016. These fires resulted in 5 deaths, 25 injuries and a whopping $19 million in property loss.

This is more than double, 2.3 times more to be exact, than the average number of fires in residential buildings on all other days of the year. The data shows that cooking is the number one cause of fires on Thanksgiving, with 76.5 percent of turkey day fires caused by the cook.

One of the biggest dangers for Thanksgiving cooks is a turkey fryer. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), since 2002 there have been $8 million in property damage and 672 injuries caused by turkey-fryer related incidents.

Fryers result in about 1,000 emergency fire calls each year according to NFPA data, causing $15 million in damage. Still skeptical about the dangers of a turkey fryer, check out this video that clearly highlights what can happen if you don’t take precautions.

Here are a few tips if you are taking the plunge (into hot oil) and frying up a turkey this year:

  • Always use a turkey fryer outdoors on a flat surface. Make sure it is away from structures, wooden decks, and covered patios. Never use a fryer in a garage
  • Have a fire extinguisher nearby and ready to use
  • Never leave the fryer unattended. Monitor the temperature of the oil with a thermometer to prevent the oil from overheating and catching fire
  • Make sure the turkey is completely thawed to prevent a fire
  • Always keep children and pets away from the fryer to prevent tipping

While fryers are certainly a major fire hazard, they are not the only thing causing Thanksgiving blazes. NFPA stats show that throughout the year (not just Thanksgiving specific) ranges accounted for 62% of home cooking fire incidents while ovens accounted for 16%.

Fires can quickly spread out of control causing both injuries and damage to your home. You should always call in the professionals if you have a fire, over half (55%) of reported non-fatal home cooking fire injuries occurred when the victims tried to fight the fire themselves.

When it comes to homeowners insurance, the dwelling coverage of your homeowners insurance will step up to help cover the cost of repairing (or rebuilding if the fire really gets out of hand) your home.

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.

Dwelling coverage not only protects your home, it extends to your garage, sheds and any other outbuildings on your property so if you manage to burn down a detached garage with a turkey fryer, you should be covered.

Another component of your homeowners insurance may also be called into service if someone is injured on your property. You liability coverage will help pay the medical bills if your turkey fire manages to injury a guest or neighbor. We will get into more about liability coverage soon but suffice it to say that carrying the proper amount of liability coverage is an absolute necessity.

Toxic turkey: I poisoned my guests, what now?

If you manage to give your guests food poisoning, or over serve someone who gets behind the wheel, you could end up being held liable for any medical bills or even repair costs.

“If a guest at your home contracts food poisoning you can be held liable,” advises Christopher Earley with the Law Office of Christopher Earley. 

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.

Despite the fact that the CDC doesn’t have exact stats on Thanksgiving poisonings, they do offer the following tips for safe food handling on turkey day:

Safely thaw your turkey: Thaw turkeys in the refrigerator, in a sink of cold water that is changed every 30 minutes, or in the microwave. Never thaw your turkey by leaving it out on the counter. If a turkey is left out at room temperature for more than two hours, it can end up in the temperature danger zone between 40°F and 140°F, where bacteria can grow rapidly.

Safely stuff your turkey: Cooking stuffing in a casserole dish makes it easy to ensure it is thoroughly cooked. If you put stuffing in the turkey, do so just before cooking. Use a food thermometer to make sure the stuffing’s center reaches 165°F. Bacteria can survive in stuffing that has not reached 165°F and may cause food poisoning. 

Safely cook your turkey: Set the oven temperature to at least 325°F. Place the completely thawed turkey with the breast side up in a roasting pan that is 2 to 2-1/2 inches deep. Make sure the turkey has reached a safe internal temperature of 165°F by inserting a food thermometer into the center of the stuffing and the thickest portions of the breast, thigh, and wing joint.

Leftovers can be dangerous: Leftovers can be dangerous as well. In fact, it is the second most common bacterial cause of food poisoning. Get your leftovers in the fridge as soon as possible.

If your guests end up in the emergency room due to your holiday meal your homeowners insurance should step up to help out. “Your homeowners general liability policy should protect you. This coverage will pay for medical bills, lost wages, as well as pain and suffering associated with the food poisoning.  If there is a lawsuit filed, your carrier will cover the costs of the litigation, and will also provide you with legal representation,” says Earley.

Liability insurance covers a variety of situations, not just your Thanksgiving disaster. It will typically cover:

  • Medical expenses of people who are hurt in your home or on your property
  • Damage you cause to a neighbor’s property
  • Legal fees if you are sued and any resulting judgments from a lawsuit, up to your policy limits

A standard homeowners policy provides $100,000 in liability coverage but you can adjust this number upwards if necessary and most experts absolutely think you should. If you are not carrying enough liability coverage you will be on the hook for any costs that go beyond your policy limits. Lawsuits can quickly eat up $100,000.

“Personal liability insurance is incredibly affordable,” says Travis Biggert, with HUB International. “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.”

As an 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

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.

Another portion of your policy that covers food poisoning is your medical payment coverage, which is similar to liability, but has lower limits and pays out regardless of fault. 

"If you end up serving under cooked turkey and guests get a case of food poisoning, their medical expenses could be covered if the host has medical payment coverage added to their homeowners insurance policy. This coverage applies to the costs associated with injuries sustained by guests, regardless of who is at fault," says Cathy O'Neil, senior claims manager at Mercury Insurance. "This coverage might be applied toward medical expenses for those not living at the property and the limit varies by state and insurance company, but typically ranges between $1,000 and $5,000 per person."

Too much Wild Turkey?

The Thanksgiving weekend, which technically runs from 6 p.m. Wednesday to 5:59 a.m. Monday (for statistical purposes) is one of the most dangerous time periods out on the road. Traffic levels peak with AAA projecting 54.3 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more away from home this Thanksgiving, which is a 4.8 percent increase over last year.

According to U.S. Department of Transportation statistics, from 2012 to 2016, over 800 people died in alcohol-impaired-driving crashes during the Thanksgiving holiday period, which makes it the deadliest holiday for auto accidents.

The National Safety Council agrees, according to a NSC report, over the past two decades there have been an average of 506 driving deaths over Thanksgiving weekend making it the deadliest one of the year. The 4th of July came in a distant second with and average of 460 deaths.

If you over serve a guest, you may find yourself responsible for any damage they do once they leave your home. The majority of states 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.

“While each state is different, in general, if you over serve someone in your home who is visibly intoxicated then you can be held liable for all losses caused to any third--party.  For example, if you over serve a visibly intoxicated guest and he then negligently causes a car accident, you can potentially be held liable to any third-party that is injured under a social host liability law. However, if your intoxicated guest simply injures himself, then you would not be liable,” states Earley.

In the majority of cases, you should be covered but there can be limitations to coverage. “Most homeowners insurance policies will provide coverage in the event a claim is made that stems from over serving a guest in your home.  As with food poisoning claims, your homeowners carrier will cover the claim as well as the costs associated with any lawsuit that is filed, up to your policy limits,” says Earley.

In addition to being responsible for everyone that slips behind the wheel you can also be held liable if a guest is injured in your home. Trips, falls and dog bites can all result in injuries or a lawsuit and you will end up covering these costs if you are not properly insured.

Always clear snow or ice off of sidewalks and driveways, and de-clutter your home to help prevent trips and falls. Keep pets in a bedroom away from guests if you have any concerns about them biting or scratching. These types of accident are all covered by the liability portion of your homeowners policy but only up to your policy limits, which makes it very important that you are carrying enough coverage.

How do I minimize the risk of hosting Thanksgiving?

It is fairly easy to minimize your risk and by taking a few precautions you should be able to ensure that your guest get home safely and you are not the star attraction of a lawsuit.

Before you send out the invites, research social host liability laws in your state. Make sure you are in full compliance and are not breaking any local laws, always know where your liability lies and if you are fully protected.

While you should be protected in most cases, there are policies that exclude or limit social liability coverage so always read your policy or check with your agent before you have a party.

“Some 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.

It’s also possible that your homeowners policy will not cover any issues related to drunken guests getting behind the wheel. “Some 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.

It is a good idea to keep Uber or Lyft on speed dial if you are serving booze at your turkey day celebration. Call a car or assign a designated driver in order to get everyone home safely, and keep your liability at a minimum.

Review your policy coverage levels to make sure you are fully protected. Consider an umbrella policy if you are concerned about policy limits. Umbrella policies are sold in $1 million increments and are very affordable.

“Most insurance agents suggest carrying at least $300,000 to $500,000 of liability protection, depending on the value of your assets,” explains Barry. “The Insurance Information Institute also advises consumers who own a home and a car to consider purchasing an umbrella insurance policy for upwards of $1 million.

An umbrella policy takes effect when you've reached the limit of an underlying policy or policies, such as homeowners and auto insurance. A $1 million umbrella policy costs roughly $300 to $500 a year,” says Barry.

Fun Thanksgiving Facts

  • 4,500 - The total number of calories that the average American will consume on Thanksgiving Day according to the Calorie Control Council, an industry group
  • $335 - Average spending per person over the five-day Thanksgiving period (Thanksgiving day through Cyber Monday) in 2017. Over 174 million Americans shopped in stores and online with Millennials being the big spenders, averaging $419
  • $640 million - Estimated amount Americans spend on Thanksgiving turkeys each year
  •  $49.12 - According to the American Farm Bureau Federation the average price of a ten-person Thanksgiving dinner in 2017
  •  89.3 percent – AAA data shows that 89.3 percent of Thanksgiving travelers will travel in a car compared to only 7.8 who will fly to their turkey day dinner
  • 100,000 – Average number of questions answered by the Butterball Turkey hotline every November and December
  • 2.65 - Number of miles the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade route covers. 3.5 million spectators attend to watch 1,000 clowns perform and to see 30 parade floats while 43 million people watch at home
  • 48,500 – People that will be seriously injured in a car accident over the Thanksgiving holiday
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