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When trees crush homes and cars, who's responsible?

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Tree struck by lightning
Mary Harens' boulevard tree was struck by lightning on Saturday morning in St. Paul. Three of the family's cars plus windows, electrical wiring and plumbing on her house were damaged.
Photo courtesy Mary Harens 2013

Twin Cities car and homeowners have been flooding their insurance companies' phone lines since Friday evening to report damage from fallen trees. One of the most common questions is: Who is responsible for fixing it?

In the vast majority of cases, it doesn't matter if it's your tree, the neighbor's tree or the city's. If it damaged your home, garage or car, your own insurance policy covers it. 

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• Photos from the storm's aftermath
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"People always think if it's your tree, you're responsible for it. But it's actually where the tree lands," said Mike Kress, an insurance adjuster with State Farm in the Twin Cities.

If it lands on a car, the car owner's comprehensive insurance policy covers the damage after the owner has paid the deductible. But comprehensive auto insurance is optional in Minnesota, so some owners are likely finding out the hard way that the damage isn't covered, said Mark Kulda, a spokesman for the Insurance Federation of Minnesota. 

"Many people don't have comprehensive because it's an extra expense," Kulda said.

Megan Kellerman, of Minneapolis, said she's glad her 2004 Volkswagen Passat was covered — the car looks to be totaled after being hit by a tree in Uptown Minneapolis, a few blocks east of Lake Calhoun. 

Damaged garage
Adam Duininck's garage in the Powderhorn Park neighborhood of Minneapolis was damaged when his neighbor's tree fell on top of it.
Photo courtesy Adam Duininck 2013

"It's still sitting there," Kellerman said Monday. "I had just bought it. It's so sad."

Kellerman is borrowing a car while she looks for a new one.

A few miles east in the city's Powderhorn neighborhood just west of Hiawatha Avenue, Adam Duininck was waiting to hear from his insurance company how much it will cost to have his garage repaired. A neighbor's tree damaged the garage's roof and rafters.

Duininck looked on the Internet for information about who was responsible for the damage. 

"It said the property owner is responsible for their own property," he said. "That was a little bit of a surprise."

Fallen trees are affecting both his and his neighbor's properties, so Duininck said they'll work together and have a contractor treat it as one job to save money. Although it isn't clear how much it will cost to repair all the damage, including some electrical work, Duininck said he expects he'll pay the $1,000 deductible on his homeowner's insurance policy.

Across the river in St. Paul's Highland Park neighborhood, Mary Harens was bracing herself for estimates on what it would cost to fix three of her family's cars plus windows, electrical wiring and plumbing on her house after the boulevard tree in front was struck by lightning early Saturday morning.

Crushed car
Megan Kellerman of Minneapolis uses her cellphone while it charges off the battery of her car, which was crushed by a fallen tree on Humbolt Ave. near 33rd Street in Minneapolis.
Hart Van Denburg | MPR News 2013

"The thing just exploded. The tree is totally stripped," she said.

Harens figures the total will be in the tens of thousands, and she said she expects to pay $6,000 or more out of pocket to cover the deductibles — the cars and home were all on different policies. 

"I was really surprised that we have to pay for all these different deductibles for this one thing happening," she said.

In the case of trees falling onto structures, most insurance companies will cover the costs of removing the tree from the structure and repairing the damage. But the company might not cover the full cost of removing the tree from the yard. 

"Trees are considered landscaping, and that's temporary," Kulda said. 

If it's a boulevard tree in Minneapolis, the city will remove the tree, officials said. 

Fences are another thing that might not be covered, Kulda said. And determining who is responsible for storm damage can get tricky if a homeowner doesn't have insurance, which isn't required in Minnesota if you no longer have a mortgage. Homeowners have gone to court blaming neighbors for failing to take care of a tree that then fell and caused damage, Kulda said. 

"There was an awful lot of tree damage to property with this storm. It's a little unusual," he said. "I have to think there will be many cases where neighbors are going to get into a dispute about the damage from a fallen tree."

TREE REMOVAL IN MINNEAPOLIS AND ST. PAUL

Minneapolis: The city plans to collect tree debris placed on boulevards July 1-12. Minneapolis residents can also drop off tree debris at two sites: Metro Wood Recycling Site at 33rd Ave and Second Street in north Minneapolis and 6200 Bloomington Road at Fort Snelling. Additional information is available here.

St. Paul: Residents should call the city and place tree debris on the curb by June 28. Additional information is available here.