Falling trees? Holes in the ground? Playground equipment? Have you ever thought about the liability issues you might face as a homeowner? There are many. Insurance helps in some cases, but not all.
A tree on your property falls into the middle of your neighbor’s house. Are you liable? It depends (which is the lawyer’s favorite answer). If the tree was healthy and came down unexpectedly, like by a lightning strike, no, you are not responsible for the damages. You weren’t negligent, and you haven’t done anything wrong. On the other hand, if you knew or should have known that the tree trunk had rotted, you would have had an opportunity to fix the problem. In that case, you would be liable because you have been negligent. Many insurance policies would cover this type of liability. If you see a neighbor’s tree is becoming dangerous, it is best to alert our neighbor politely. Preventing the problem is better than figuring out who must pay for the damage.
What if your friend has a two foot wide hole dug in her yard as part of a landscaping project, and you fall into it, tearing ligaments in your leg? Is your friend liable for your damages? If the hole was clearly visible, then no, because the law says you should have seen the danger and avoided it. If the hole was concealed or hidden, so you reasonably would not have seen it, then your friend was negligent, making her liable. Even if the fall was your fault, there may be a little bit of help for you. Your friend’s homeowner’s insurance may have what’s called “medical payments” or “medpay” coverage. Medpay is a small medical benefit payable to anyone who has medical bills from being injured on your property, no matter whose fault it was. Medpay is usually limited to about $1,000 in reimbursement paid when the injured person submits medical bills to the insurance company.
Your child’s friend comes over to play on your playground set, and takes a fall. If you have kept the playground equipment in a reasonably safe condition and if you are supervising play appropriately for the children’s ages, you aren’t legally responsible.
Intentional acts are usually not covered by insurance. If your college age teen has friends over and a fight breaks out in which he slugs his now-former friend, this is an assault. Other than medpay, your homeowners’ insurance isn’t likely to pay for the damages. If the injuries are serious, the damages may be substantial, and your teen is legally liable for them without any real help from insurance. If your teen is under 18, you may be legally responsible too.
Do you have homeowners’ insurance? Sometimes I hear a client say that she plans to cancel her homeowners’ insurance policy to save money now that her mortgage is paid off. Mortgage lenders always require homeowners’ insurance to protect their loan investment in the property. Upon further thought, the client may realize that homeowners’ insurance is still important to protect her own investment in the home even though there is no lender to require it. The policy protects her if someone is hurt on the property, and pays to rebuild in the event of a fire or catastrophic storm. Good insurance coverage can help a homeowner sleep better at night.
Kim K. Steffan is an attorney with Steffan & Associates, P.C. in Hillsborough, NC. She can be reached at 919-732-7300 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was last updated in January 2020.