Disclaimer: The following article discusses generalities of property-insurance policies and is not to be taken as legal advice or definitive information about specific coverages or specific loss. Every policy is different, and to interpret each policy, the insured must consult a licensed public adjuster or an attorney in their state.
With the internet enabling the easy sharing of information, a revolution is happening in the tree-service industry. Traditionally, tree services were relatively in the dark when it came to homeowners insurance policies. And, although things are quickly changing, there are still misconceptions regarding property-insurance coverage for the removal of fallen trees.
Let’s start with a few definitions.
Indemnification – Indemnification is the primary function of property insurance. To indemnify the policyholder is to bring the policyholder back to pre-loss condition in the event of a covered peril, causing a loss.
A Loss – Loss of assets resulting from a pure risk. This is typically physical loss or damage to property used as a requirement threshold to trigger coverage. In most cases, the property’s physical change or structural damage is easily observable with the naked eye.
A Peril – A peril is an event that causes damage to property. There are different types of perils; some are covered, and some are not. When it comes to trees on houses, one of the most commonly covered perils is a tree falling from wind.
Coverages – There are many different types of coverage afforded by property insurance, and typically each has its own limits of coverage. Let’s focus on the two primary ones – Coverage A and Coverage B.
Coverage A: This typically covers the main dwelling/house or, in the case of a commercial policy, the commercial building. The removal of a tree off a primary structure typically has no limit for tree removal, but rather its limit is the limit of the policy.
Coverage B: This usually covers the auxiliary structures around (but not connected to) the house. These may be structures such as swimming pools, fences, sheds, driveways, walkways, etc. Often, Coverage B has a limit, expressed as a percentage of Coverage A, to remove the fallen object off the covered structure and repair the structure.
For example, if a tree falls on both a retention wall and a swimming pool, and Coverage A is $150,000 and the Coverage B limit is set at 10%, the maximum that the insurance company would pay is $15,000, both to remove the tree from the wall/pool and repair the wall/pool. If the total cost surpasses $15,000, the homeowner would have to pay the difference.
Debris Hauling – In most cases, hauling debris is its own separate coverage. Typically, debris hauling for residential policies varies from $500 to $1,000. In commercial policies, debris hauling is often expressed as a percentage as well.
Policy Owner’s Duties After Loss – In the declarations section of most homeowners policies, the homeowner has warranted (promised) the carrier that in the event of a loss to a covered property, the homeowner will take reasonable measures to both keep people safe and protect the property against further damage.
Now, let’s talk about the top-seven misconceptions regarding trees and property-damage claims.
1. The limit is $500 to remove the tree.
Often, when a homeowner calls about a tree on a house, the insurance carrier has told them that the max allowed by the policy to remove the tree off the property is $500. The confusing part is the definition of “property” in this case, which applies to the acreage rather than the covered structure. The policy typically will allow $500, or in some cases $1,000, to haul off the tree debris from the acreage. This coverage is completely different than the cost to lift and remove the tree off the insured structure.
2. The homeowner needs to get permission before removing the tree from the house.
Often, homeowners believe they are required to ask permission before they are “allowed” to remove the tree off their house. I have never seen policy language that says this. Remember, part of the policy holder’s duties after a loss is that they will take reasonable measures to prevent further damage to the house or injury to others.
To illustrate this danger, imagine if a 25,000-pound tree falls precariously onto a homeowner’s house. If that same tree had fallen even on the lawn of a city park next to a playground, the park managers would likely very quickly cordon off the area out of safety concerns.
So, going back to the same tree on the house, it is failed, destabilized, super heavy and dangerous. No homeowner should be forced to live under that type of weight and risk exposure. I have never seen policy language that described the insured waiting for estimates in that type of dangerous scenario.
3. The homeowner needs to get estimates before removing the tree from the house.
I have yet to see a sentence like this in any policy. But the sentiment remains pervasive. Imagine a hurricane blows in and knocks down thousands of trees. Phone lines are down and tree services are not responding, nor are insurance carriers. Travel is dangerous and limited. But there is a tree service working next door that can remove the tree from the homeowner’s house right now. In an extreme case like this, you can see how any notion of forcing an insured to get estimates would be absurd.
4. Stump grinding is never covered by homeowners insurance.
Occasionally, insurance adjusters will say that stump grinding is not covered. While this is usually technically true, there are also times when it can be covered. Let’s imagine a partial blow-over, where the root ball lifts a fence post slightly into the air.
Because the insurance carrier is required to indemnify the homeowner, they may be obligated to repair the fence. That said, if the blow-over lifted the fence post into the air, and now half of the blow-over is in the air space where the fence should be running, how can the fence company rebuild the fence without the stump being ground? They can’t. In cases like this, stump grinding will likely be covered because the insurance company cannot rebuild the fence without clearing the airspace.
The same coverage would likely be found if a root ball lifts a patio, a deck, a sidewalk, a driveway, underground utilities, corrugated underground, gutter drain pipe, invisible-dog-fence wire, landscape-lighting wire or even sprinkler-system plumbing. In these cases, stump-grinding coverage could likely be successfully argued to rebuild the covered structure.
5. The tree did not fall on the house or cause much damage, so it’s not covered.
When a tree falls in the yard, people sometimes think that it’s not covered because the damage is not dramatic. Instead, insurance often covers mundane things like mailboxes, posts for addresses, landscape lighting, retention walls or sprinkler heads. When a tree falls and even brushes up against any of these things, there will be some amount of change of state. Remember, the insurance carrier has a duty to indemnify the insured, to bring them back to a pre-loss condition. That means even the slightest scuff on a mailbox could be argued as the insurance carrier’s duty to fix.
6. Insurance only covers the part of the tree that has fallen on the structure.
In truth, insurance adjusters are worlds apart from the real-world process and safety of the tree-removal activities that they are adjusting. They are not faced with OSHA requirements nor the real-world complications of safely lifting trees off structures.
Each tree-on-a-structure situation is different. Sometimes, they’re cut-and-dried, and other times they have all sorts of hazardous conditions to address. Because of these variables, adjusters often struggle to quantify reasonable and customary pricing to accomplish the tasks in a safe manner.
In what may be an oversimplified attempt to calculate what is owed in coverage against all the variables, adjusters will sometimes claim that the policy only covers work to “chop & drop” the portion of the tree that is sitting on the house. Keep in mind, the coverage comes down to policy language, and I’ve never seen a policy that contains the colloquialism of “chop & drop.”
So, let’s explore four examples where adjusters often fail to see what is owed as reasonable and customary.
Example A: A storm causes a tree leader to fall on a house and punch a small hole in the roof, creating a covered loss. The hole is leaking water, and the insured feels their duty to prevent further damage is to hire someone to make reasonable and necessary repairs to remove the fallen leader from the roof and install a tarp.
However, directly above the fallen leader on the house is another large, broken leader that is precariously hanging over the lower leader. More specifically, the way it is barely hanging on, it is creating a hazardous work area should anyone try to go under it to remove the lower fallen leader.
We, as trained arborists, know that working under broken hangers is hazardous, and OSHA says that employers shall provide a safe workplace free of known health and safety hazards.
So, in this case, I would argue that, because our industry standards are to maintain a safe working environment, the hanger still in the tree becomes part of the process of removing the broken section of the tree from the house so the roof can be tarped, and therefore should be covered.
Keep in mind that just because it is argued, it does not mean it will be covered. Remember that the adjuster in the cubicle may simply look at that branch sitting on the house and claim that is all they are responsible for.
So not only is it your job to create a working environment free from known hazards, but now, if you want to argue coverage for both leaders, it is also your job to clearly document the situation with photos so the adjuster can understand how, for safety reasons, both of these fallen leaders are really one complete job, i.e., it is not possible for anyone to safely remove the lower leader without first removing the upper one.
Example B: An ice storm damages a tree. The top of the tree completely breaks out and lands on the insured’s back deck with no visible hangers, and the section of the tree sitting on the deck is completely separated from the tree.
In this example, the insurance adjuster who argues that they are only responsible for the top portion sitting on the deck might have a strong argument, as it is safe to enter the work area since the remaining tree in the air is stable. In this example, cutting down the remaining portion of the tree that is still standing would likely not be covered, because typically insurance policies only cover the removal of fallen objects off covered structures.
Example C: A front-yard, 100-foot pine tree uproots, falling away from the street and bridging from the root ball to the gutter, with the last 25 feet of the tree on the insured’s ranch-style house.
An adjuster might assert the “chop & drop” argument, saying there is only coverage for the 25-foot portion of the tree on the house, and that coverage does not start until you’ve put in the “free labor” with your chain saw to cut one solid fallen tree into two separate pieces of material. At which point, they only have to pay for a smaller portion of what used to be one object anyway.
I have yet to see policy language that describes anything that remotely resembles “chop & drop.” It simply isn’t there. So, in cases like this, I would argue that the policy coverage allows for the removal of the entire tree. It is one, single object that goes from the uprooted root ball all the way down the trunk and up onto the house.
Example D: In a tornado in Tennessee in 2020, there was a homeowner who had about nine 100-foot trees that had fallen in the backyard, toward the house. It was a downhill slope from the street to the house. All of the trees were twisted together, and the tips of the trees had brushed up against the house.
A disaster-relief organization had a team cut the tips of the trees off of the house, hand carrying those tips out to the street. Unfortunately, in this situation, the disaster-relief org was actually causing more problems for the insured than they realized.
Had the right crane been deployed, it could have lifted those trees off the house and set them on the street. And it would have been covered. However, once the tree tips were cut off the house, it prevented tree services from being able to invoice the carrier, because by that point they were already off the insured’s structure. There was probably 100,000 pounds of trees down that hill that likely had coverage for full removal, but due to lack of knowledge, the insured was left with a huge mess to clean up.
7. Trees across driveways are never covered.
While some policies will mandate that a certain amount of damage must happen to remove a tree from a driveway, there are situations where trees across driveways create a hazard and must be taken care of for the homeowner to fulfill their duty of protecting property after a covered loss.
Keep in mind, in some policies, there must be damage for it to be a covered loss. I have seen losses as small as scratches to an asphalt driveway, scratches on landscape lighting or even a broken sprinkler head covered. So this one can be somewhat variable. I have had claims denied, yet I’ve also had others covered.
So, how might coverage be seen? Let’s say, as an example, the insured has a very long driveway and a tree falls across the driveway near the street, and that inhibits the ability for passage of emergency vehicles. What happens if the house catches fire? How will the fire truck get near the house to put out the fire? In cases such as these, arguments can be made that the homeowner is fulfilling their stated duty to mitigate further damage under a covered peril, which is a windblown tree.
Though coverage is usually not included for ingress/egress unless damage to the insured’s property occurs, often it is if you look closely. Usually, there is something that got disheveled or scratched, like a mailbox or a landscape light.
So, what will insurance companies pay to remove a tree off a house? The simple answer, in most cases, is that they pay reasonable and customary prices to mitigate further damage.
The less simple answer is one that continues to evolve as our industry becomes more educated, continues our commitment to provide safe working environments free from known hazards and stops buying into the “chop & drop” or $500 arguments.
With more education and sharing of information, I look forward to seeing the insurance tree-coverage landscape evolve.
Mark Russell, an ISA Certified Arborist and a tree risk assessment qualified (TRAQ) arborist, owns and operates 770-Arborist Emergency Tree & Crane, a five-year TCIA member company based in Atlanta, Georgia. He also is a licensed public insurance adjuster and has successfully negotiated thousands of insurance claims over the course of his career. You can read his blog at 770arborist.com.