Bad Weather and The Homeowners Insurance Policy

Property Insurance And Bad Weather

If the Weather Outside is Frightful, Will the Homeowner's Insurance Policy Pay a Benefit That is Delightful?

The spat of recent poor weather in Central Massachusetts has generated thousands of homeowner policy insurance claims and questions. In Massachusetts, the standard home owner's policy is typically divided into two sections: Section 1 provides coverage concerning first-party claims for property damage to the insured's home and property and Section 2 protects the insured from liability and damages if another person or party is injured on the insured property because of the homeowner's negligence. In the event you recently suffered damage to your home arising from the recent snow and ice that has bedeviled Central Massachusetts, Section 1 of your policy will be the place for you to start the review of the coverage available for a specific type of loss or damage to your home. The policy language can be complicated to read for the untrained eye given the myriad of sections proclaiming what is covered, what is covered but limited and what is not covered at all. Two of the more common homeowner's claims in the winter concern damage caused by accumulating snow or freezing temperatures. What follows below is how Massachusetts Courts have dealt with these particular issues.

  1. Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow!

The Driscolls owned a rental property and were advised by an engineer that the cause of the exterior outward bending walls, ceiling cracks and bowing roof was the accumulation of heavy snow. They submitted a claim for the damage to their home and property insurer, Providence Mutual and Fire, which was denied on the basis that (a) the roof of the rental property was poorly designed and (b) an actual collapse of the roof had not occurred. A Trial Judge found for the Driscolls and the insurance company appealed. The primary issues for the Appeals Court in Driscoll v. Providence Mutual and Fire was whether there was a "collapse" caused by the snow and assuming there wasn't, did the policy still cover the structural damages caused by the heavy snow? Relying on past rulings, the Driscoll Court held that the "sagging" roof did not rise to the level of a collapse which requires "an element of suddenness and a visual element of altered appearance distinct from a degenerative process." A collapse, was in short, the end result of a process and not the process itself. Nevertheless, the Driscoll Court went onto find that there was coverage for the Driscoll's damages since their particular policy did not require the precondition of a collapse but did cover, in essence, the sagging roof and bowing exterior walls that were in a "pre collapse" state caused by the heavy accumulation of snow.

Similarly, in the case of Dreiblatt v. St. Paul fire & Marine Insurance, the First Circuit Court of Appeals, in applying Massachusetts law, wrestled with the question of whether a "collapse" caused by heavy snow had occurred. The Dreiblatts were members of a condominium association in Charlestown. The property insurance policy essentially provided that if the roof collapsed, there was coverage for repairs. If, on the other hand, the roof was not in a state of "collapse", there was no coverage and the members of the association would have to dig into their own pockets to fund the repairs. Following the analysis outlined in Driscoll, the Dreiblatt Court found that the fact that the roof had sagged several inches towards the condominium ceilings and even though many support structure for the roof were of little utility, a collapse of the roof due to the heavy snow had not occurred and therefore the property insurer was not liable.

  1. Hey Baby its Cold Outside!

In addition to the damage of accumulating snow on one's home or business, another common risk of winter weather experienced by property owners is the loss of electricity and the consequential freezing and bursting of water pipes. InPalmer v. Pawtucket Mutual Insurance, the Massachusetts Supreme court faced the issue of whether the insurance company's denial of a property damage claim trigged by water damage from a frozen pipe was proper.The Palmer's homeowner's policy would only pay for damage to their house caused by a frozen and bursting water pipe in an unoccupied house if the Palmer's exercised "due diligence" in trying to either heat their home or turn the water off after the loss of power and before they vacated the property. In the Palmer's case, the Court found that they had hired a heating contractor who advised them that the hot water heating system pipes could not be drained but that they could guard against them freezing by adding anti-freeze to the hot water pipes. Apparently the technique worked for two winters but then failed resulting in a burst pipe during a particularly brutally cold winter night. The Palmer Court ruled in favor of the home owners finding that the undefined term "due diligence" was ambiguous and the Palmers had exercised due diligence by consulting the contractor, even though his recommendation was flawed.

The Massachusetts Supreme Court reached a different result, however, in Williams v. Liberty Mutual Fire Ins. primarily because of different policy language in the home owner's policy. The Williams owned a home in Gloucester that was damaged by freezing pipes and water on a freezing December night complete with gale winds and sleet. Their policy only covered water damage from freezing pipes if it was first preceded by damage to the house roof or walls. Stated differently, there needed to be a hole in the roof or walls caused by the wind. In their case, however, the Williams home did not suffer damage to either the roof or walls but did sustain damage to a shuttered louver in an attic loft allowing the freezing temperature to penetrate the house and freeze a water pipe in the attic. The Williams Court therefore concluded that the water damage caused by the freezing pipe was not a covered risk under the home owner's policy.

If you were lucky enough a few weeks ago to escape damage to your home, you may want to consider calling the insurance broker or the insurance company now to see when damage caused by severe winter weather would be covered and what steps you need to take to protect the coverage. The fact that folks may need to abandon their homes in the winter for a lack of power is tragic but the tragedy will be compounded if damage occurring to your home while you are out of it is not covered by the insurance company.