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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

You ARE Liable for Dangerous Trees on your Property

Q: I own a vacant lot that has many mature trees. I am worried that as winter approaches, a tree may fall causing damage to my neighbor’s home or property. Can I get insurance on a vacant lot? What should I do to protect myself?
Signed: Watchful Eye in Graton

Dear Watchful Eye: Oh, what great foresight you have, especially as all brace for the upcoming winter. Smart of you to be thinking ahead. I’ve addressed in past columns the fact that a property owner is liable for damage caused by poorly maintained trees. If the tree appears openly hazardous and dangerous, you are presumed to have “constructive notice” of the dangerous condition and could be held liable for any injury or damage caused. Bottom line: If the tree is on your property and it falls, you are liable for any injury or damage caused, meaning that the neighbor will likely either file a claim against your insurance company or sue you in court.

The lesson here is for everyone to assess now whether their trees need to be trimmed or removed. Call a reputable tree trimmer or arborist. Look for a local and bonded company—I believe one or two of them may even advertise and support this local paper!
Now, after you have completed your preventative sweep, you should also be armed with a few practical tips, re: Insurance Law 101.

Generally, if you are a home-owner, you will have a homeowner’s insurance policy with comprehensive personal liability coverage. This coverage automatically extends to any vacant land that is likewise owned by you. The qualifying “triggers” are: 1) the land must be vacant (meaning just that—no pump houses, outbuildings, etc. can be on the land); and 2) the land must be deeded or in the name of the same individual (or insured) as the homeowner’s policy. Finally, please note that the land need not be in the same county as the home that is owned. Coverage automatically extends to any territory that your insurance company is licensed to do business—so your vacant lot could be in New Jersey or Puerto Rico (also a US territory), as long as your insurance company is licensed to do business there.

What if the vacant land is zoned “commercial”—will coverage from the homeowner’s policy still automatically extend? Yes—the qualifying factor is how the land is deeded, not zoned. So again, the title of the vacant land must be held by the same individual or homeowner who is on title on the home. There is one exception—insurance coverage will not automatically extend if the vacant land is owned by a corporation. (If the vacant land is owned by a corporation, the corporation may have to pursue a commercial endorsement to obtain coverage).

Now, let’s assume that you do not own a home (you rent) but that you do own this vacant lot. If that is the case, you should call a reputable insurance agent and pursue a “Tenant Homeowner’s Policy” for your rental home. This coverage will offer you comprehensive personal liability coverage for your rental home in case a visitor or guest gets hurt in your home; and like the homeowner’s policy, this coverage will automatically extend to any property owed by you, i.e. the vacant lot. Call a reputable insurance agent to discuss the options. If you don’t have one in mind, use mine—Sheila Harden at Northwest Insurance Agency (707-360-4136). She is honest and responsive. (Also, kudos for her husband John, a local and independent film maker, whose screenplay made it to the finals at the Austin Film Festival—check out if you have an interest in independent film making.)

Great question—my hope is that collectively we have helped our Readers ponder and act as winter approaches so that our community remains safe and uninjured. Prevention is key. As Benjamin Franklin quipped, “It is easier to prevent bad habits than to break them”.

DEAR READERS: Do you have a legal question that has been burning on your mind (but are hesitant to ask an attorney…cha-ching; cha-ching)? Please send your questions to Debra A. Newby via email (contact information below). Your name will remain confidential. Although every inquiry may not be published, we will publish as many as possible. Finally, this Q & A Legal Column is intended as a community service to discuss general legal principles and does not create an attorney-client relationship.

Debra A. Newby is a resident of Monte Rio and has practiced law for 27 years. She is a member of the California, Texas and Sonoma County Bar Associations and currently maintains an active law office in Santa Rosa. Her law practice emphasizes personal injury law (bicycle/motorcycle/motor vehicle accidents, dog bites, trip and falls, etc.) and expungements (clearing criminal records). Debra can be reached via email (, phone (707-526-7200), fax (526-7202) or pony express (930 Mendocino Avenue, Suite 101; Santa Rosa, 95401).

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