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When a tree falls in a storm, who pays for its removal? (factsheet)

This fact sheet is for information only. It is recommended that you get legal advice about your situation.

Download our printer friendly version here (PDS): If a Tree Falls

CASE STUDY

Jane lives on a block with lots of trees. One night there was a huge storm and four trees on her property came down. One a big old eucalypt fell in the backyard. Thankfully, it did not hit anything but she now has a massive fallen tree that is blocking her from getting to the back gate. A second one crashed and damaged her shed. A third one crashed and landed on her car that was parked on the street A fourth has landed on the house next door! It has caused the boundary fence to come down, and has damaged the neighbours guttering. Jane recently had a landscaper out; he told her all the trees on her property were in really good condition.

WHEN A TREE FALLS IN A STORM WHO PAYS FOR ITS REMOVAL?

After recent storms across Australia, common inquiries on the In­surance Law Service advice line are:

  1. Whether a consumer’s insurer is liable for the removal of a fallen tree, or damage caused by the tree to the insureds property; and
  2. When a tree has fallen on a neighbour’s property, whether the tree owner or the tree owner’s insurer is liable for any damage caused by the tree.

Insurance is a contract between an insurer and you, where the insurer on receipt of a premium agrees to compensate you for certain defined losses or liabilities that may occur during a specified period of coverage. Routinely, insurers will seek to minimise potential claims by including exclusion and condition clauses to limit the liability.

What you are covered for with your insurance policy will depend on the wording, and you should read your Product Disclosure Statement (PDS). Cover can vary significantly from insurer to insurer.

Some insurance policies will only cover you for the removal of the tree if it causes damage to the insured home and contents. If there is no damage to the home or contents, then you may be up for your own removal costs.

When a tree falls and it is a tree on your own property it can be a straight­forward application of the policy wording.

CASE STUDY CONTINUED

In the case of Jane, her policy covers her for storm, but excludes the cost of removing fallen trees where there is no damage to the insured property. As the first tree has fallen in the backyard but not hit any of the property, her insurer will not pay for the cost of the removal.

With her second tree crashing into her shed, where she had build­ing insurance that covered sheds and outbuildings, she is covered to remove the tree and fix the shed. With the tree that fell on her car, as her car is not covered by her home and contents insurance, it is not covered! Luckily, she has comprehensive car insurance and so she can make a claim on the car insurance. Her car will be repaired, but the tree removal costs will be up to her.

Jane’s neighbour has sent her an angry letter demanding she pay for the removal of the tree, and claiming money for the damage to the gutters! Jane’s insurer says she is not liable and to ignore it! Jane’s insurer says they will only pay for 50% of the fence, and tells her the neighbour has to pay for the rest!

 Difficult situations often arise when the tree falls on your neighbours’ property. The neighbour may think you are automatically liable, because it is after all your tree.

The law about neighbours rights and responsibilities is covered generally by the common law, being the tort of nuisance or negligence.

Just because the tree is on your property it does not mean you are automatically liable for the tree falling or dropping branches in a storm.

For you to be liable, generally you need to be aware the tree:

  1. is near the boundary and is in a dangerous condition, or
  2. belongs to a species which is known to ‘drop’ branches

If a strong, healthy tree blows down across the fence in a storm, this is considered to be an ‘act of God’ for which there is no liability.

When you are the owner of property you are liable as the home owner for any claim of nuisance or negligence made out against you. It is generally advisable to have Home and Contents insurance which will cover you for your “legal liability”. An insurer generally sets a limit of $20 million for “legal liability” to pay damages arising from a claim for an accident that results in death, bodily injury, or damage to property of a third party not living with you. This extends to damages if a tree on your property falls and damages to another persons property and you are liable.

If you are not liable, then your insurer is not either.

If you knew the tree was dangerous, for example, an arborist had recommended its removal or you had a Council order requiring its removal which you failed to act on then you may be exposed to some lia­bility. If you think there may be an issue, notify your insurer immediately.

With boundary fences, generally each neighbour is responsible for 50% of the cost for repair or replacement of the fence. As you are only liable for 50%, then your insurer is only liable for 50%.

CASE STUDY CONTINUED

Jane’s tree is healthy. The severity of the storm meant lots of trees blew down, and there was nothing she could have done.

Jane writes back to her neighbour and explains that as the tree was healthy, her insurer says she is not liable and she suggests they claim on their own insurance. She forwards them the invoice for the 50% of the fence repair.

Jane’s neighbours (or their insurer) could still insist she is liable. They would need lots of evidence to show that it was an obvious and foreseeable risk that the trees would pose a danger. They should proba­bly seek legal advice before they commence any proceedings against Jane as Jane has a report saying the trees were healthy and the storm was very severe.

TIPS!

It is always a good idea to read your PDS to check the extent and conditions of your coverage.

Where trees cause damage and it is not a storm, for example your tree was dead, damaged or a species prone to having branches fall and you have a reasonable suspicion it might fall down you should take steps to address the danger. Contact an arborist or your local council about whether the tree can be removed. If the tree or branches cause damage, then you may be liable. Your insurer will not pay the cost for these preventative steps, but it might be in your interests to address the problem.

It is a common exclusion in the “legal liability” that the insurer will not be liable for damages to third party property where you are cutting or lopping trees. This would be a risk you would bear.

NEED SOME MORE HELP?

See Fact Sheet: Getting Help for a list of additional resources.

Last Updated: February 2017