If a city tree falls on your home, should you pay?

Report to Committee of the Whole, Dec. 12, 2pm; to Council Dec. 19, 7pm.

Burlington insurance and homeowner protectionCity staff have reviewed and are recommending no change to our insurance policies following concerns from residents about claims being denied for such items as tree damage.

Currently, if a city tree or branch falls on your home or vehicle, if the city has conducted an inspection of the health of the tree within seven years (a council-approved inspection cycle), the claim would typically be denied. You would have to pay for the damage yourself, or submit a damage claim through your own home insurance, and risk your premiums going up or eventually being dropped.

I’ve been contacted by many residents living on established streets in Ward 2 that are lined with large, mature trees who have suffered damage from a city tree or branch, and have been denied any compensation. In one case, a tree limb tore out hydro wires, landed on a transformer, and shorted out appliances and electronic equipment. The resident chose to pay thousands to replace the items rather than lose a preferred insurance rating by putting in a claim. In another case, a city branch crushed a young man’s car, leaving him to put in a claim and risk insurance rates rising beyond affordable levels. In some cases, residents have put in a claim through their home insurance, but were still out of pocket the deductible – typically $500. This is extra money some people simply don’t have. Further, by putting in a claim, residents risk being later dropped by their insurance company, which happened in one case I heard about.

The city has three options: status quo; shorten the tree inspection cycle to prune trees before they do damage; or implement an “ex gratia” insurance program that allows the city to provide some compensation for tree damage without admitting liability. Residents have indicated to me that as a matter of fairness, they do not consider status quo an option – they are 100% paying for damage not of their making caused by a city tree. Shortening the tree pruning cycle might be a step in the right direction, although it would require extra staff at considerable expense, and may still not capture all the trees and branches before they did damage.

I asked staff to review the ex gratia program. Other communities have such a program, primarily for sewer backups. Peel offers $1,500, Durham Region $400, Halton Region $500 and Greater Sudbury up to $250 for damage from sewer backups. Hamilton offers $1000 for basement flooding, and up to $5000 in addition for sewer backups.

There is something of a precedent in Burlington: Currently, the city covers the Motor Vehicle Accident Fee of $350 for fire department response to car accidents involving Burlington residents. (Non residents are billed the fee). Clearly, the city has no liability in these situations, but nevertheless pays the emergency response fee. Council initially voted to eliminate paying the fee for residents, but in response to public input, voted in June 2010 to continue paying. (Read the press release and staff report here).

The staff report coming to committee next week recommends against the ex gratia program. Read the report here and Appendices here. I will be presenting a staff direction to explore this option further, for trees only, with a maximum compensation equivalent to the $500 deductible.

My Take: In the interest of fairness and justice, I’m supportive of exploring the ex gratia program to provide some relief to residents for damage caused by city trees. I see this as similar to the city paying the Motor Vehicle Accident fee.

Your view: What do you think? Should the city offer some sort of compensation to residents whose property is damaged by city trees? Email me at or leave a comment below.

Written by Marianne Meed Ward

I was inspired to seek public office because I believe, like so many of you, “I can do something about that” on the issues we face. As councilor, my role is to take a stand on what’s best for residents and go to bat for it. Pushback is inevitable from those who don’t have the community’s interests at heart. I will stand with you and for you, to achieve the best interests of our city, without caving to unacceptable compromise in the name of consensus.

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