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Who Pays for Life or Limb?
by Sandra Julian Barker

What happens when a limb snaps off a neighbor's tree and crashes down on the car innocently sitting in your own driveway? The windshield of your car is smashed and two small dents now dimple the previously smooth surface of the hood.

Who covers the cost of the damages? If it was your own tree that had caused the damage, you obviously would have to bite the bullet and call your insurance agent. But this situation is different. It was his tree growing in his yard. Surely, his homeowners policy will cover the expense of repairing your car, right? Wrong! Unless the tree is dead and considered a known hazard, the owner of the tree or his insurance company isn't responsible for any damage resulting from flying branches or even the accidental falling of the entire tree. It's considered an "act of God," which absolves your neighbor from any legal or financial responsibility. Your own comprehensive automobile insurance must cover the damage to your vehicle. Seems unfair, but that's the rule. If you aren't covered by comprehensive insurance, you're in trouble, because you must absorb the entire cost of car repair or replacement yourself.

If you find part of your neighbor's tree lying across your vehicle, prepare for not only the inconvenience of taking the vehicle in for repair, but perhaps even a hefty deductible payment before your comprehensive kicks in. State Farm's Bill McCullough, fire claims superintendent in Tampa Bay, Fla., says, "The average deductible carried by most of our customers is $250." That means, the car owner must pay the first $250 of any repair or loss before the insurance company pays the remainder of the bill.

Amounts of comprehensive coverage normally range from full coverage (meaning you pay no deductible for repair or replacement) to $500 deductible. The higher the amount you agree to pay in case your car is damaged or items are stolen in a non-collision situation such as fire, theft, storm, glass damage, and such, the lower the yearly insurance premium you will pay. Depending on the model and year of your vehicle, a high deductible of $500 may cost you $42 a year in premiums compared with $92 a year in premiums for full coverage*, but when disaster strikes and you're forced to use the comprehensive portion of your policy, the small yearly savings may cost you plenty. It would take 10 years with no comprehensive claims to outweigh the $500 deductible you would pay on the rates quoted above.

If your neighbor's tree has caused the damage and he's a good friend, even though his insurance will not cover any of your damages and he's legally not responsible, he may feel morally responsible and offer to pay your deductible. But don't count on it. Few neighbors make such a generous offer, and if the deductible is high, even though his intentions are good, he may not be able to afford to assume such responsibility. Of course, if you live next door to a jerk or have a running feud with your neighbor, you can forget any offer of reimbursement whatsoever. In most cases, you'll be stuck with paying the deductible or have to take your neighbor to court (a no-win situation when the tree is healthy and the accident is considered an "act of God." In fact, no reputable lawyer would even take such a case).

All in all, the best advice is to avoid parking under a tree. If that suggestion isn't an option, be sure your car insurance policy is in order and your comprehensive deductible is in an affordable range. After that, just hope a strong gust of wind doesn't grab any of your neighbor's branches and toss them in your direction.