by Amy Bach

 

Biblical quotes dominate the online comment threads about the horrific mudslides in Montecito, California...people trying to understand how such a lovely community can be suffering so much devastation - first wildfires, now this...

Landslides and mudflow often follow wildfires, and post-wildfire rains are particularly damaging in hilly/mountainous areas.  The tree and plant roots that held the soil in place are gone.  The "Fire-Flood Sequence" is a well-known phenomenon, yet insurance companies generally will reflexively reject claims for mudflow damage under home/fire policies by citing the standard exclusion for flood damage.  Property owners who fight back in support of their claims for coverage have had mixed results in courts of law.  Because most lawsuits settle confidentially, we don't know how many have been successful.  Some case law supports coverage for flood damage following a wildfire

      “[f]ire insurance ‘is intended to cover every loss, damage, or injury proximately caused by fire, and every loss necessarily following directly and immediately from such peril or from the surrounding circumstances, the operation and influence of which could not be avoided." Appleman, Insurance Law & Practice § 3082 (1970)). 

      "By statute, California insurance policies are required to provide coverage whenever a covered peril is the “proximate cause” of the loss. Cal. Ins. Code § 530. Case law interprets “proximate cause” more broadly as “efficient proximate cause,” or the cause that “sets others in motion” and is “the predominating or moving efficient cause.” Sabella v. Wisler, 377 P.2d 889, 895 (Cal. 1963) (see also, Howell v. State Farm, A044405, 1990) (finding that under Sabella and Cal. Ins. Code § 530, it is a jury question whether a mudslide following a fire on a hillside above the damaged property is covered under an all-risk policy). 

Those with flood insurance will have a stronger base for collecting benefits, but not a sure shot.  The specific nature of the damage, the exact wording in their policies, and the degree to which their insurer honors their reasonable expectations of coverage will be the determining factors in whether or not insurance benefits will be paid for repairs/restoration of their assets.  UP supports the impacted property owners in seeking coverage.

Each insurer writes (or doesn't write) their own definitions into their policies.  Commonly understood definitions factor in when there's a dispute between a policyholder and an insurer.  FEMA's flood policy defines "mudflow" as:

  • Mudflow. A river of liquid and flowing mud on the surfaces of normally dry land areas, as when earth is carried by a current of water. Other earth movements, such as landslide, slope failure or a saturated soil mass moving by liquidity down a slope, are not mudflows.

Flood coverage can be purchased through the hybrid government/private National Flood Insurance Program or a company that sells either "stand alone" flood coverage or includes it in their home insurance policies.  Our publication "The 'dirt' on insurance protection for mud flow damage" lays out the basics.

If you live in a region where there have been wildfires in recent years, get a quote for adding flood protection to your property insurance and buy it if you can afford it.

See also:

Pluses and minuses of flood insurance

Flood insurance buying tips

Insurance tips for storm damage

About The Blogger

Amy Bach

Amy Bach has been a professional advocate for insurance policyholders since 1984 and an attorney since 1989. She co-founded United Policyholders in 1991 and serves as the organization's Executive Director and primary spokesperson; shaping and overseeing the Roadmap to Recovery™, Roadmap to Preparedness, and Advocacy and Action programs. She is a nationally recognized expert on insurance claim and legal matters; frequently interviewed in print and broadcast media, and the author of numerous publications including "The Disaster Recovery Handbook", "WISE UP: The Savvy Consumer's Guide to Buying Insurance" and consumer tips and guides in the UP Claim Help Library.  Recognized by Money Magazine as a Money Hero, Bach is in her eighth consecutive term as an official consumer representative to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, and is a member of the Federal Advisory Committee on Insurance.