Tree roots and sewer lines- never should the two meet.
But if they do, will a homeowner's policy respond to the damage? Following is a scenario involving damage by tree roots and the responses from some of the experts.
Say a person had tree roots punch through the sewer lines buried in her yard leading to/from the house. This has interrupted her water and sewer service, and it will be quite an expense to replace the piping. The problem, however, has not caused any resultant water or sewer damage to her home. She calls and asks if this is covered under her homeowner's policy. While there doesn't appear to be a specific exclusion, is the sewer line considered part of the dwelling?
The experts weigh in as follows:
Examining damage to the sewer line itself caused by tree root intrusion, the key issue revolves around the facts of the claim... did the tree roots cause the damage? If so, the consensus is that there is no exclusion in the ISO HO form that precludes coverage, thus, this should be covered. However, if the roots simply enter though a break caused by pressure/earth movement, then there is no coverage, as earth movement is excluded. (You must buy earthquake coverage separately).
This clearly is an "open perils" type of loss, thus, direct damage is covered, unless excluded. The closest thing to an exclusion in the HO3 is "wear and tear," although that usually involves gradual deterioration through use. There is no specific exclusion for damage to covered property by tree roots.
The consensus is that since the HO3 policy provides "open perils" coverage for building items, this would include pipes, drains, and sewer lines. The homeowner's program doesn't have an exclusion for items like "underground pipes, flues, and drains" as a commercial property program does. However, remembering that the HO policy covers "risk of direct loss" there must be actual damage. If the lines are just clogged up and not actually damage, there may not be any coverage.
Based on the "open perils" or "direct risk of physical loss" wording in the policy that does not specifically exclude the actions of tree roots, we argue that there is coverage as long as it is fortuitous. The problem with root claims is that they take so long to occur and most insurers conclude that there must be a "sudden and accidental" element. The requirement doesn't appear in today's homeowner's policies, so the only exclusion that might apply is the unwritten fortuity (accidental) exclusion. Not much for an insurance company to go on. Again, we argue that this should be covered.
There are several other possible scenarios involving tree roots. As noted in the experts' opinions, coverage depends on the facts of the loss. Was there damage to the sewer lines? Was there damage to the home? Obviously, if there's no damage, there's no coverage. Will such damage even be covered?
This is the kind of loss where you need an advocate who understands the nuances of the policy contract, and knows the difference between the general practice and the letter of the contract.
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