How to save my house from being demolished due to my neighbor's rotten tree falling on it?
March 16, 2012 6:30 PM   Subscribe

A neighbor's rotting tree fell on my house. I have no homeowner's insurance and the neighbor's insurance is denying responsibility. I can't afford the repairs, although I own the house outright (no mortgage), and now the city of Montgomery, AL wants to demolish. What are my options, legal or otherwise, to save my house?

[Note from legibility – I am posting this for my friend Lisa. This is not my beautiful house, this is not my beautiful wife, &c. Any helpful advice is appreciated. Thanks, MeFi!]

I am unemployed, looking for a job and own my home (no mortgage) in Montgomery, AL. I have been selling my possessions to keep basic bills paid. I know I am in a better position than most folks because I do have a roof over my head. In July 2011, I lost my main job and income. In September 2011, I could not pay my homeowner’s insurance, I was paying month to month. My neighbor has a bad tree on her property and small limbs had been falling on my roof. I asked her about the tree and she told me part had fallen in her yard before. She was scared of the tree but there was nothing she could do about it and we would have to pray that nothing would ever happen. On November 16th 2011, the top of the old oak tree fell on my home. A tree company volunteered to get it off my house and wrote a letter verifying the tree had rotted where it broke off. I filed a claim with her insurance company but they have denied it, claiming that if there is "one green leaf on the tree" they are not liable for the damage because it's not dead. In the meantime, the City of Montgomery sent me a letter stating they were going to demolish my home. I have contacted the city council and they know my situation now, but I still need to get this fixed somehow or I am in danger of losing my home. My estimates from contractors range to about $15,000.00 in damages. I have reached out to local churches but have been told the job is too complicated for what they are used to doing. I also had a contact with Habitat but I have not heard anything back from them. I have called a few lawyers and most don’t want to touch this case without some money up front. Small claims court here is maxed at $3,000.00.
posted by legibility to Law & Government (30 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

Legal Services Alabama is a statewide nonprofit organization dedicated to providing access to justice and quality civil legal assistance to educate and empower Alabama's low-income community from ten offices located in: Anniston, Birmingham, Dothan, Florence, Huntsville, Mobile, Montgomery, Opelika, Selma and Tuscaloosa.

Here is a link to their Housing Services page which indicates that they help with "repair problems."

Apologies if you have already reached out to LSA and they can not help you, but I sincerely hope that they can.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 6:44 PM on March 16, 2012 [6 favorites]

I think as a general principle it is your responsibility to trim branches that hang over your property. The neighbor's insurance company is right. If you didn't trim those branches, it was your negligence. You have no recourse.

posted by jayder at 6:51 PM on March 16, 2012

Mod note: Axed links to facebook page, please don't do that here. Add links in your profile if you want people to look at them, thanks.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 6:53 PM on March 16, 2012

Response by poster: I asked Lisa to create an account so she can put it on her own profile (wouldn't really make sense to put it on mine). Thanks.
posted by legibility at 6:56 PM on March 16, 2012

Hi, I'm Lisa, the link should be attached to my profile. I have reached out to legal services here but they do not help with property damage. It is more than a branch, it is the whole top of the tree that fell on my home.
posted by taptempo at 7:13 PM on March 16, 2012

Have you talked to your bank about the possibility of a mortgage or home equity loan? That is, do you have enough income to pay for the repairs if you can pay for them over time rather than needing $15k up front?
posted by decathecting at 7:15 PM on March 16, 2012 [4 favorites]

I believe if you put your neighbor on notice that the tree was a hazard, it is their responsibility to ensure the tree is safe. It still may not be covered by their insurance, but I suspect you might have legal recourse against the neighbor.

I would keep looking at low cost / free legal services and make sure they understand the full details - if you might lose your house, your legal needs (and their potential to help) go well beyond just property damage.

Good Luck
posted by NoDef at 7:22 PM on March 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's tricky: you'll really need to talk to a lawyer at least to find out what the laws in your jurisdiction are. I've been looking into this in MY region (Australia), because we have a gum tree on our property whose branches stretch out over both my own roof and my neighbour's and I do not want to be liable when (if) they drop and cause damage, which happens a lot with gums.

Here, it is absolutely my responsibility to keep the tree in as safe a state as possible, and if it is rotting, to have it cut down. This is expensive, but usually* feasible, and I suspect your neighbour saying "nothing could be done" and just to pray nothing happens means they got a quote and were horrified and couldn't afford to have the tree removed. But that does not (probably - again, depends on jurisdiction) absolve them of responsibility. And their insurance may be refusing to pay out specifically because the neighbours should have been keeping the tree pruned and maybe removed.

*HOWEVER, it is also the case in some places that large old trees have historic protection. This is actually the case for my gum tree. In those circumstances it is very difficult to get permission to remove them even when they are dying and in danger of causing damage. You need to find out whether this was the case for your neighbour's tree. It is possible that "nothing could be done" meant "we are not allowed to remove the tree. In that case you might have some recourse with the council or historic society or whoever deemed that the tree should not be removed.
posted by lollusc at 7:29 PM on March 16, 2012

This sucks. I just heard this week that insurance companies have been weaseling out on these type of claims. Try the legal services Snarl Furillo linked to above. I suspect your neighbor is legally liable, but IANAL (I am not a lawyer).

Another place to contact would be The Consumerist, as sometimes they can contact someone you can't, or give advice on escalating up the ladder to people in charge. On that note, perhaps the BBB might also be able to help prod the insurance company.
posted by annsunny at 7:36 PM on March 16, 2012

Are property values in your area healthy enough that the home would be worth substantially more than $15k if it were fixed?
posted by jon1270 at 7:36 PM on March 16, 2012

Have you tried contacting a local politician or a news station?
posted by spunweb at 7:52 PM on March 16, 2012

Talk to a lawyer. It will not cost you anything, in most situations. If there is a claim to be made, the lawyer will be willing to take the case on a contingency.

If you do not want to cut a lawyer in for 1/3 of your loss, then talk to one and pay his hourly fee to learn what your rights are and what you can and should do.

If you don't want to do that, you can always take your chances with free suggestions from the internet.
posted by megatherium at 8:04 PM on March 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

I don't have a bank but the equity loan might work if I can find a company to work with me. Average homes on this block go for about $70,000. Don't they do an inspection? I wonder if I could get a loan in the condition it is in now. I am definitely contacting more lawyers. The neighbor connected to us also had problems getting her to cut back some dead tree limbs. The neighbor even offered to pay for it and the bad tree neighbor refused.
posted by taptempo at 8:26 PM on March 16, 2012

Former claims adjuster (but did not handle property claims, well, not for long, anyway).

Some insurance companies are notorious for denying claims; others are more reasonable. So that part is out of your hands. And, I agree with the post above that branches extending over your property is generally your problem. However, a significant part of a tree is a different matter (IMO).

This is what I would do, in this order. Gather photographic evidence. Call the insurance company back and ask to speak to the supervisor of the adjuster who handled your claim. Ask the supervisor how to file an appeal. If the supervisor does not seem helpful, suggest that you will be contacting the state insurance office (whatever it is called in your state). That threat struck fear in the supervisors I worked under and often resulted in a reversal of the adjuster's decision (just the threat alone did the trick).

If the threat doesn't work, do file a complaint with the state insurance oversight office. File a complaint with the Better Business Bureau. Even if the Small Claims Court limit is much less than you would wish, anything you win would be better than nothing. And contact the local TV station that has the most active consumer activist and see if you can't stir up some interest. Every station has slow news days and your story could be the filler (and human interest) story they love (little guy against big bad insurance company).

Also, check out Consumerist blog for email addresses of the powers to be in the insurance company. There's lots of good advice in the archive of that blog. Also you could write up your story and submit it to the Consumerist and see if that gets any attention.

Good luck.
posted by daneflute at 8:29 PM on March 16, 2012 [10 favorites]

The adjuster told me that if there was one green leaf on the tree they were not liable and it was Alabama law the tree had to be completely dead. I tried to file a complaint with the Alabama Dept. of Insurance and was told unless I sent my neighbor a certified letter stating her rotten tree was a hazard to my property that I could not file a complaint. He could write a letter but it would do no good. He didn't know anything about a dead tree law. The adjuster also told me that if I sent 100 certified letters it would not matter in this case because the tree is not dead. They are contradicting each other but both covering for themselves.
posted by taptempo at 8:42 PM on March 16, 2012

Did you fill in this complaint form here already?
posted by MegoSteve at 8:59 PM on March 16, 2012

You REALLY need a lawyer. Even if you have to pay a couple hundred bucks for an hour or two consult, I think it'll be worth it. You can already see that the wheels are in motion for everybody to cover their own ass: the insurance company wants to weasel out of the claim and the city knows that if they demolish your house, chances are you'll be ruined and go away, and even if you don't, they can always paint you as a destitute crackpot.
posted by spacewrench at 8:59 PM on March 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

You really must get a lawyer. Everyone's trying to screw you over and you need someone with expertise in this area who will protect you. Just keep trying everything until you get one.

And good luck. I hope you teach some of these people involved a good lesson.
posted by orange swan at 9:24 PM on March 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

Call the State Bar, get a legal referral. Most of those initial consultations are free. You must, absolutely must, lawyer up.
posted by dejah420 at 9:37 PM on March 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

I agree with everyone else that you need a lawyer.

There's a lot of stuff like that you can keep doing to push (everyone has a boss you can appeal to, Ben Pruitt's boss is Commissioner Jim Risling, Commissioner Jim Risling's boss is Governor Bentley), but, ultimately, it seems like there's a lot of circuitous finger pointing going on, and the best way to resolve it would be to contact a lawyer, especially if there's a clock counting down to when the city demolishes your home.
posted by MegoSteve at 9:41 PM on March 16, 2012

Risling Ridling
posted by MegoSteve at 9:44 PM on March 16, 2012

You will not be able to get a regular mortgage or a home equity loan as long as the property is in that shape. You could, however, use a FHA 203K loan for those (and any other) repairs. It's a loan that lends you enough money to make necessary repairs, and it's pretty much the only mortgage, to my knowledge, that you can get to make repairs to a dwelling that is currently unfit to live in. Check with a local loan officer.
posted by brownrd at 9:59 PM on March 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

Just want to add that in my experience, insurance companies usually give in and pay up (after negotiations, of course) once a lawyer is involved.

Try the law schools in your area, too, for free or low-cost representation.
posted by jbenben at 10:16 PM on March 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

It probably isn't a law on the books, taptempo, though it's possible it's in their administrative code. More likely it is case law of some type, meaning somewhere in Alabama once upon a time a legal decision was reached and set a precedent. But, and here's the thing, I would not take anyone's word for what the outcome of your situation might be if they are connected with your neighbor. This includes, of course, your neighbor's insurance adjuster. They don't have any obligation to give you a correct answer.

Even if there is case law, that certainly DOES NOT mean you are barred from filing a complaint; I assume here you mean claim, or lawsuit against the insurance company, rather than a complaint to the insurance bureau, but even so there is still no reason you can't FILE a complaint. It only affects whether the complaint or claim will be honored.

The situation for you is so dire that you absolutely need someone on your side giving you advice from Alabama law and from the legal documents you have been provided or that may be requested on your behalf. This isn't something we can really answer for you.
posted by dhartung at 10:49 PM on March 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

IANAL. IANYL. (I am not A or Your lawyer.)

I had a similar but much more minor event. The neighbor's dead tree fell on my wooden fence destroying that panel of it. The neighbor claimed it was an "Act of God".

Well no, an obviously dying tree finally falling is not an "Act of God", it is predictable.

Just under City code, the neighbor was fully responsible. I didn't even go farther to find out about County or State codes.

To avoid hassles, I just fixed it myself. Your situation is 100x more of a financial hit than I took, plus more.

Get a lawyer, get a shark of a lawyer. Call the ambulance chasers that advertise during the Judge Bigmouth TV shows in the afternoon for auto accidents. Very likely, I hope, they can refer you to someone who can take care of that pretty fast and at no cost to you.

You may wind up with another house - your former neighbor's.
posted by caclwmr4 at 11:03 PM on March 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

Just to chime in with dhartung, I filed an insurance complaint with my state, once. I'm pretty sure you can file anything. It's probably true that it won't do you any good, but you absolutely should go through the motions just in case. Here's why...

When I filed my complaint, it was so well documented, my lawyer was surprised I didn't get any traction from it. I still think (and my lawyer did, too) that it overall helped my position.

The fact that you will go to any lengths to see justice WILL register.

Cover every base.
posted by jbenben at 11:12 PM on March 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Mod note: A couple of comments deleted. Taptempo, please do not publish the names of people involved. Thanks.
posted by taz (staff) at 2:37 AM on March 17, 2012

In general, if you informed your neighbor that there was an issue and they failed to do anything about it, it should be their responsibility. However, it may end up being a matter of answering the question "did they act reasonably?" Laws vary by state, so yes, you do need to talk to a lawyer. They may want to contact someone with more expertise; this guy with the lousy wig is really a specialist, and publishes state law summaries related to trees for many states (but unfortunately not Alabama). I've seen him speak a few times, and he does know his stuff.
posted by Red Loop at 6:22 AM on March 17, 2012

Don't let anyone on the "other side" convince you that you can't win this and must accept their terms - oh, no. Get the lawyer who advertises on late-night TV that he'll take on anything - and let him.

But here's the thing I want to say out loud: If all else seems to be failing, get the press involved. Yes - don't be shy. Miracles happen from all directions when someone's trying to scam someone else and their name hits the headlines. Trust me: Lawyer first, press second.
posted by aryma at 6:40 PM on March 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Thank you for all of this great advice. When the incident first happened none of the lawyers I contacted wanted to touch the case. I have done what a few advised me to do and now I've got to find one to take my case. Thanks everyone.
posted by taptempo at 7:32 AM on March 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

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