When Trees Strike Back: What to Do and Who Is Responsible

Trees are beautiful. They provide greenery to city landscapes, shade our yards and homes, and do that cool thing with oxygen and carbon dioxide. You know, keeping our planet alive.

But there is an indignant streak to trees. They can look pretty one second and, well, destroy your house the next, or fall into a road and cause an accident.

It’s okay if it happens to the other guy. But what if it happens to you, your house, or your car?

Welcome to the minefield of difficult to understand insurance laws, provider procedures, and crazy driving laws.

Don’t worry. We’ve got you covered.

“Thar she blows!” said no one as a tree toppled onto their house.

If a tree falls onto your property, damaging your home, you might breathe a sigh of relief. After all, you have homeowners insurance. But hold that sigh. Getting compensated might not be as easy as you think.

Trees are governed by a unique branch of law: tree law (pun intended). As Atlas Obscura notes, tree law is something of a gnarly, twisted set of laws that deal with strange circumstances and obscure instances.

They may not be the oldest laws in the world, but they are some of the more difficult to handle.

Tree Laws are Complicated

Tree laws are considered case laws, meaning they’re based on the outcomes of previous cases. They vary widely from state to state, but there are some commonalities.

One of these laws is that the owner of a tree is found where the trunk of the tree emerges from the ground.

This impacts your destroyed house in a few ways.

First, if the trunk was on your property, the city’s likely not going to reimburse you for the damages. However, you may have a case if you called the city to have the tree removed due to safety reasons and they never did.

Second, you’ll have to file an insurance claim with your provider. As the Insurance Information Institute notes:

“If a tree hits your home or other insured structure, such as a detached garage, your standard homeowners insurance policy covers the damage to the structure, as well as any damage to the contents.”

Insurance Information Institute

You should be covered. This is especially true if the fallen tree was due to a “perils” issue, like high winds or a storm.

If you get an award, how much will it be? Without knowing a specific situation, we can only speak to the average award, which is $4,110 according to Consumer Reports.

But not so fast.

Allstate writes that not all claims might be approved. The reason? If the damage was caused by negligence or lack of maintenance issue. If you knew the roots were bad and hadn’t tried to get the tree cut down, then you might not be approved.

When the Clash Between Neighbors Comes Down to a Loud Crash

Now, if it’s your neighbor’s tree, then you’re in luck.

Your standard homeowners policy should cover all tree damage, even if the tree is your neighbor’s. You may even get your deductible back, as your insurance company will go to your neighbor and their insurance company and get them to pay for damages.

However, the situation might be different if you want to sue your neighbor yourself.

See, we know that tree law is a bit of a gnarly, twisting set of roots. Delving into them is a bit like examining all the quirks surrounding the history of lawns.

Are there any specific laws that govern neighbor on neighbor tree crime?

Let’s take a look.

Statutory Tree Laws

Georgia has a Fallen Tree Responsibility Law which states that if you see a decaying or dangerous tree on your property, you must remove it. If it falls on another person or their property, you will be held liable. If that tree wasn’t decaying or dangerous? You’re free and clear according to Attorney R. Michael Coker.

Max Burbach, of Koley Jessen, writes the same thing about Iowa and Nebraska law. Unless the owner had “actual or constructive notice” that the tree was decaying and dangerous, they cannot be held liable for property damage.

Triply true for  Virginia, and New York.

“Knowing of a dangerous tree on your property and not doing anything about it is grounds for liability.”

On a larger scale, you have to prove this in liability court if you want to sue for damages.

What You Should Do When an Instance Occurs?

The process for filing a homeowners claim is different and more complicated than other pieces of property like cars.

All the usual parts apply:

  1. Get a record of what happened
  2. Talk to any witnesses
  3. Take pictures of the damage

An additional step you might want to take when dealing with homeowners claims is to talk to a contractor to come in and assess the damage. They can provide an estimate which you can give the insurance company.

If the award comes back less than you want, you can call in other contractors to assess the damage and provide higher estimates.

Final Assessment

Trees hitting houses are nightmarish situations. There are insurance regulations, national laws, and state laws. There are tree lawyers, arboreal arbitrations, and negligence to prove.

It is little wonder that some people consider this a complicated and complex area of law. In the end, always know your own insurance plan, so there are no surprises.

Except for the tree. It’s such a rare occurrence, you wood not believe it.

Chris Tepedino is an insurance writer at InsuranceProviders.com. He likes making puns, financial automation, and free margaritas.

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