A town-owned tree fell on my car - town says they're not responsible
August 10, 2014 6:46 PM   Subscribe

A large tree across the street fell on my car while I was sleeping and did a fair amount of damage. After getting two repair estimates as requested, the town's insurance company decided they have no responsibility as they didn't have prior knowledge of any problems with the tree. Is this the end of the story?

A large tree across the street fell on my car while I was sleeping. This was not during a storm; the tree apparently was cracked or old. It fell across the street and onto my car, which was parked next to my house (where I rent). The town removed the tree from my car (and the street) with some massive equipment and only a stump is left. But the tree left many scratches and some dents on my car. Had it not fallen on my car, it would have fallen on the house.

I was told to go the town selectman's office, and there I was asked to get two damage estimates, which I did and were sent to the town's insurance company. The woman at the selectman's office warned me that they might just call it an "act of God" and deny responsibility. I asked if the town would cover my deductible if that happened ($300) and we would just go through my insurance. She said no, as that would "set a precedent". And not surprisingly, the town's insurance company decided they have no responsibility as they didn't have prior knowledge of any problems with the tree and that noone told them that there were issues with the tree beforehand. Case closed as far as they are concerned.

Apparently my landlord noticed the crack in the tree before it fell, as did the people who live across the street. However, they never mentioned it to anyone and I never noticed it. My landlord is checking with his homeowner's insurance to see if this is something they would cover, but so far he hasn't gotten a response.

So, am I stuck with the deductible, or a scratched up car? It seems odd to me that someone could say, "Well, you didn't tell me my property was cracked and potentially dangerous, so therefore we deny any responsibility", but that's what's happened. Is that normal? Is there anything I can do?
posted by FlyByDay to Law & Government (11 answers total)
Best answer: If the town had to be responsible for every tree branch that accidentally fell, many towns would just choose not to plant trees and you'd end up w those streets where you can't get any shade... But if you think the town should be responsible for a regular tree health check, you could bring it up at the next council meeting / town hall thingy.
posted by mdn at 7:04 PM on August 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

This is a your insurance fights their insurance thing. If it's not worth the raise in premiums for you live with a scratched up dented car.
posted by AlexiaSky at 7:21 PM on August 10, 2014 [9 favorites]

This is generally the case all over the world with councils, you will need to demonstrate that they knew about the tree and failed to act. Otherwise it sucks, but you won't get far.
posted by smoke at 7:58 PM on August 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

It will mostly depend on state and local law. Some states do require actual knowledge. Some states just require a reasonable person would've known standard.

I'd imagine there's also some type of sovereign immunity hurdle to clear.
posted by yeahyeahyeah at 8:00 PM on August 10, 2014

The town is liable for damage that is caused by their negligence. Were they negligent in any way? Is there something that they could have done that they didn't do? Did the town have any reason to believe that the tree was unstable?

Truth is, just because a tree has fallen doesn't mean that it is someone's fault. I think in this case you will have to pony up the deductible. Sorry.
posted by elf27 at 8:47 PM on August 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

Is this the end of it? Yup, basically. Comments above me address the situation pretty well. I work for a city council and act for our insurance officer when she's on leave. Our insurance won't pay for anything we're not at fault for.
posted by jrobin276 at 8:59 PM on August 10, 2014

Best answer: The town is responsible only if it was negligent and that negligence resulted in damage to your property. However, as you mentioned, the town had no indication that the tree was a problem - even you were unaware. Had your neighbors brought the crack they knew about to the attention of the town and the town did nothing, then you'd have a case here.

Also, I wouldn't even bother with insurance over this unless the scratches/dents impair the vehicle in some way. If it[s just aesthetics? Save your deductible/premiums.
posted by stubbehtail at 10:22 PM on August 10, 2014

Presumably you could put in a freedom of information request to the council, in case they DO have a record of being aware of problems with the tree.
posted by dvrmmr at 10:37 PM on August 10, 2014

Unfortunately they are right. This would fall under your comprehensive coverage. This is a good opportunity to check the rates for your comprehensive deductible. Full comprehensive coverage (no deductible) is not that much more expensive than a $250/$300 or $500 deductible. Your agent should have explained it to you.
posted by prk60091 at 5:47 AM on August 11, 2014

Smarter people above have said they're not legally responsible. I'd argue that they are, however, morally responsible.

Sic your insurance company on their insurance first. If that doesn't pan out, go to the news; "City council refuses to pay for damage to citizen's car" is a headline journalists tend to like.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 6:34 AM on August 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: As others have noted, the town is responsible for the tree if someone told them there was a problem with it. Since that appears to not be the case, I suspect you won't have much luck getting their insurance to cover it. This is pretty much what your insurance is for.

For illustration, consider the former Big Apple Pothole and Sidewalk Protection Committee. This was a group of New York personal injury lawyers who, for many years, went to some considerable expense to produce annually updated maps of New York sidewalks and streets with very detailed information on cracks one might trip over and potholes that might cause an accident. The maps were presented to the city as a public service -- which coincidentally also made it possible to then sue the city in case of some damage caused by one of the noted potholes or sidewalk issues because they had been informed of the problem beforehand. This apparently went on until state law was changed to shift liability from the city to adjacent property owners.
posted by Naberius at 12:09 PM on August 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

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