Don’t Cut Down Your Neighbors Trees And Expect Your Insurance Company To Cover You If Your Neighbor Sues

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As many people know from firsthand experience, neighbor disputes can be ugly and unpleasant.   An example of an issue that can create friction between neighbors is where trees or foliage on one neighbor’s property becomes overgrown or intrude onto another neighbor’s property.  In such circumstances, one may be tempted to simply prune or cut the trees themselves.  On May 20, 2015, the California Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District, issued an opinion entitled Albert v. Mid-Century Insurance Company (2015) — Cal.Rptr. — WL 2398554, which addresses one such dispute, and is a cautionary tale for anyone thinking of taking matters into their own hands.

In Albert, the Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District, which sits in downtown Los Angeles, rejected insurance coverage under a homeowners policy for a lawsuit brought against the insured by the insured’s neighbor.   The lawsuit by the neighbor claimed the insured “damaged nine mature olive trees” owned by the neighbor “byseverely hacking, cutting, and pruning those trees . . . without permission.”  The insured tendered the claim to his insurance company, and asked it to provide her with defense and indemnity coverage.

The policy only provided coverage for “an accident . . .  which results in property damage,” and had an exclusion for intentional acts.  Although the insured claimed that she believed the trees were hers and only intended to prune not damage them, and therefore did not intentionally violate the neighbor’s rights, the insurance company nevertheless denied the claim.  The insured sued her insurance company, but the Court of Appeal sided with the insurer, rejecting coverage and holding that “the trimming of the trees was no accident.”

The Albert decision represents a good illustration of the difficulty in obtaining insurance coverage for lawsuits brought based on an insured’s intentional conduct.  As in Albert, many policies require an accident to trigger coverage, and contain an intentional acts exclusion.  What constitutes an accident, or comes within the ambit of an intentional acts exclusion, is not always clear.  Thus, case law holds that where an act is intended, there is no accident “merely because the insured did not intend to cause injury.”  (Fire Insurance Exchange v. Superior Court (Bourguignon) (2010) 181 Cal.App.4th 388, 392.)  On the other hand,  case law also holds that even where the insured committed some intentional act, there still may be an accident for insurance coverage purposes where “any aspect in the causal series of events leading to the injury or damage was unintended by the insured and a matter of fortuity.”  (Merced Mutual Insurance Company v. Mendez (1989) 213 Cal.App.3d 41, 50.)  Similarly, with respect to intentional acts, it is not always clear what is excluded.  As the California Supreme Court has pointed out in the context of analyzing an intentional acts exclusion, “an act of the insured may carry out his ‘intention’ and also cause unintended harm.”   (Gray v. Zurich Insurance Company (1966) 65 Cal.2d 263, 273.)

What constitutes an “accident” for coverage purposes, and under what circumstances an intentional act precludes coverage, is a complicated area law where there are often not clear answers.  Policyholders, in conducting their affairs, should generally assume that intentional acts causing harm are likely not covered under liability policies.  In other words, don’t cut down your neighbors trees and expect your insurance company to cover the resulting lawsuit.