All of the cases I discuss on this blog deal with my clients’ problems. This one is different. It deals with my own problem – a property insurance issue between myself and my neighbor.
When I got up in the morning after Hurricane Sandy, I noticed that my backyard looked different, much different. Five 30 foot pine trees that had once stood tall on my neighbor’s property were now lying down on my lawn. Three of the trees laid completely on my property while two were still rooted on my neighbor’s. There was no damage to my house or any other property. The only money that would be spent would be cost of tree removal. I felt bad for my neighbor as he told me that he had an estimate of $5,000 for removing the trees.
Anyway, not my problem – OR SO I THOUGHT!
Will my Neighbor’s Property Insurance Pay for the Tree Removal Service Cost?
A few days later, my neighbor came up to me and explained that he had been talking with his insurance company and other friends about who was responsible for paying for the tree removal. He told me that I was responsible as the trees were now on my property. I told him that I thought he was crazy, but that I would look into the matter. I immediately called my homeowner’s insurance company to inquire as to who was on the hook for removing the damaged trees. They told me that according to the property insurance policy – I was. Their explanation was that when an act of God causes trees to fall on a person’s house or car, your neighbor is not responsible at all. (The exception is when the trees are rotted and the neighbor has knowledge of this.)
In other words, if your neighbor’s tree falls on your deck or your house, he is not responsible to pay. However, my insurance company would pay to repair the damage and to remove the tree. If the tree did not cause any damage, but was merely laying in my backyard, my homeowner’s insurance would not pay for the tree removal.
How do Property Damage Laws Address This?
Fortunately, I have learned over the years that insurance companies’ knowledge of the law tends to favor them and not their policy holders. I, therefore, researched the law myself and asked a lot of questions. Here’s what I found.
The law has only addressed issues regarding fallen trees where there has also been property damage. But the law is silent as to who is responsible for the payment of removing the fallen trees where there is no property damage involved. Why hasn’t the law addressed this issue? The main reason is that the cost involved in removing a fallen tree is not great enough to result in people filing lawsuits and appeals. It would cost more money to hire a lawyer than it would to actually pay for the removal of the tree.
If the law is silent on this issue, then who should pay – the tree owner or the owner of the land where the tree falls?
To muddy up the waters just a bit, let’s consider other examples -
- My neighbor has just planted an expensive Japanese maple tree, and a storm uproots it and blows it on my lawn. It can be replanted. Does my neighbor get the tree back or can I keep it since the storm blew it onto my lawn?
- A storm blows my neighbor’s expensive lawn furniture onto my property – can I keep it or do I have to give it back?
- My neighbor’s dog walks onto my property and is struck by lightning (an act of God), do I have to pay for the dog’s removal and burial?
Neighborly Settlement for Removing the Trees
So what happened next? Well, what usually happens when the law is unclear and a resolution is required is that compromise occurs. (If only Congress would abide by this principle.) My neighbor was able to get a lower estimate and agreed to split the bill with me. I agreed.
I believe that I could have prevailed in court. First, I am a lawyer so I would not have had to pay for a lawyer. Second, it would have been interesting, win or lose, to have a new law regarding fallen trees named after me.
If you have a fallen tree issue, please don’t call me to represent you. I’d rather represent people in Chester County in car accidents where I have a pretty good understanding of the actual law.