The winds and downpours that hit California this month sent trees and branches down on houses, garages, cars and, tragically, people.
When a tree stump or limb destroys your property, one of your first questions will probably be, “Who will pay for this?” There is a high probability that you will have to cover at least some of the costs.
Five key factors are involved in the work:
- What was damaged?
- What caused the tree to fall?
- Whose property was the tree on?
- How was the tree?
- What are the terms of your insurance policy?
In some cases, you may have to pay the full bill. However, in others, the net cost may be zero.
Home or car?
The most likely source of help when a falling tree limb damages something you own is an insurance policy. Structural damage to your property – home, garage or shed – would potentially be covered by homeowners’ policy. Damage to items in your home, garage or shed would potentially be covered by your homeowners or renters policy, as would damage to items on your vehicle. Vehicle damage can be covered by your auto insurance policy if it has the right options.
Coverage is only potential and not certain due to some other factors.
First and foremost, what weather event uprooted the tree or broke its limbs.
Your homeowners policy will only cover tree damage if it was caused by windstorms, lightning or hail. An earthquake requires a separate policy, just like a flood or a mudslide. The Tenant Policy has similar restrictions.
One notable exception that is important in California: If the tree is part of a stream of debris from an area burned by a fire, you can claim that the “proximate cause” was the fire (which is covered by the homeowner’s policy) and not the flood waters (which is not the case) .
The second key question is the state of the tree. If he was healthy and well-maintained, the direct cause of the damage was probably the wind, which shook him so hard that his limbs flew into the air. This is considered an event beyond your control and a standard insurance policy will cover it, according to the Insurance Information Institute.
However, you will still have to pay the policy excess. If the tree was on someone’s property, the insurer can claim reimbursement from that person – and possibly return the deductible as well, says the Insurance Information Institute.
If your claim is paid, your insurance premiums may increase in the future as homeowners’ insurers base their rates in part on their customers’ damage history. In fact, if you file many large claims, you may have trouble finding an insurer to cover your home.
If the tree was unhealthy and was planted on your property, the insurer may argue that the immediate cause of the damage was poor maintenance, not the storm. In that case, you would have to pay the entire bill. (Even if it was a healthy tree, if its trunk or branches fell without hitting anything, you’ll be responsible for cleanup costs. Your insurer won’t pay to remove the tree unless there’s damage to a sheltered structure or blocked driveway.)
If an unhealthy tree was on someone’s property, you should be able to claim reimbursement from that person’s homeowner’s insurance, says Progressive Casualty Insurance Co. on your website. But he adds: “Keep in mind that negligence can sometimes be difficult to prove. Your case will be stronger if you have previously asked your neighbor to remove a rotting tree or sent him or her a registered letter from a tree specialist stating the need to remove the tree.
What if my car is plastered over a tree?
The first question is whether you have “comprehensive” coverage. The state of California requires drivers to have collision and liability insurance; comprehensive, which covers everything else, is optional.
If you have that range, the second question is whether the vandalized tree was on your property. If so, your auto insurer may deny your claim if the tree was not well maintained or if its fall was not caused by wind, hail or lightning.
Assuming it wasn’t your tree, or at least not a diseased tree in your yard, and you have comprehensive insurance, you’ll still have to pay the deductible. However, under California law, car insurance premiums should not increase after a claim if you are essentially not at fault.
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