You don’t have to keep up with the daily news to know that the past couple of years have been devastating to much of California because of wildfires. Some of these fires were started from natural causes and others were the tragic product of human carelessness. Regardless of the origin of these disasters, the outcomes were catastrophic.
2018 alone topped the charts as the worst wildfire year in over a decade and 2017 was right behind it as the worst year on record at that time. Millions of acres of wilderness were destroyed, including much of the state’s renowned wine country estates and thousands of homes and businesses.
People who stayed behind to protect their homes were in severe peril. Hundreds of lives perished during these fires, and thousands more were injured from smoke inhalation, burns, and structural damage.
As people fled their most cherished possessions, often including pets and livestock, to save their family’s lives, they faced the uncertainty of knowing if they’d ever see their homes again. And when they did, many of them had to deal with the horrifying fact of being told that they had lost everything – and that their insurance would not cover a penny.
How is this possible? A grave act of insurance fraud and injustice? Or ignorance on the part of the property owner for neglecting to carry homeowners’ insurance?
Actually, for most of these instances, it’s neither case, and it can happen to anyone. So who is responsible for property damage and personal injuries after the smoke from millions of acres of wildfire clears?
The Legalities of Insurance Coverage for Natural Disasters
Insurance companies are shrewd and intelligent. They know that, in order to stay in business and make a profit, they must insure more low-risk policyholders than high-risk. But turning away every homeowner in the densely populated state of California would be bad business.
Instead, insurance companies in areas prone to high-risk events such as wildfires, floods, and earthquakes avoid having to pay out claims for these events by excluding them from their basic home insurance policy provisions.
If the homeowner isn’t paying attention when they sign their policy or needs a cheap policy, they may not know to ask for the supplemental coverage that most insurance companies do offer to cover these otherwise excluded events, and they may pay for this slip-up in shocking, expensive ways.
Property insurance is covered in two categories: open peril and named peril. In open peril policies, it’s a comprehensive coverage that includes just about any situation your property may face. These policies are, of course, more expensive. Named perils, on the other hand, give the insured the opportunity to pick and choose the perils they want their home covered against. Because they have the choice to exclude coverage they don’t think they will need, this type of policy is much cheaper.
You might think it just makes sense to have the open perils policy, especially in a high-risk state like California, but remember that the cost of living in the Golden State is already one of the highest in the country. Insurance premiums are frequently unaffordable when combined with mortgages or rent amounts as it is, so many policy owners don’t have a choice but to cut corners where they can.
But for those who can afford open perils policies, they may assume that they have comprehensive coverage for everything. But some types of natural disasters are excluded, including fire or flood. You have to purchase a named policy supplement in addition to your comprehensive policy.
There are some situations in which natural disasters are not covered, regardless of your policy terms. This usually occurs when the insurance company claims that an action on your part, or someone else’s, could have prevented the damage from occurring. If this happens to you, you may be able to fight the insurance company’s denial with the skilled help of an attorney.
What Kinds of Injuries Can be Caused by Wildfires?
Not every wildfire is avoidable. Like the hurricanes that threaten so frequently along the coast eastern coast, the fires in California are common and usually minor. It’s easy to dismiss them as insignificant to you and yours until they are too close to ignore. But by then, the damage is upon you quickly.
If you are stuck in the midst of the chaos of a wildfire, you don’t have to be burned by the flames to be injured. The fire and heat of a blazing inferno can create instabilities, even from afar, that cause structural damage to your home. If you are caught in that structural damage, it’s easy to be injured.
Burns are common, too, of course, and those who suffer from wildlife burn injuries are usually scarred for life. They will need immediate medical care for their burns, skin grafts for reparation, and medical and mental health treatments for their long-term health. For many of these victims of California’s savage fires, this treatment has to come out of their own pocket, but for those who were injured through the negligence of someone else, they may be able to get compensation with the help of skilled attorneys like those of us at Hershey Law.
More common than moderate to severe burns are the smoke inhalation injuries from breathing the toxic fumes for too long. This happens in a wide radius of the fire itself because you don’t have to be near a visible flame to be breathing in the dangerous gases.
Smoke is a combination of gases and particles that come from burning matter. When this mixture is inhaled in your lungs, it can make breathing difficult. Long-term exposure to the gas can make chronic health conditions worse and trigger the exacerbation of symptoms from asthma, COPD, and other severe medical illnesses.
The effects of smoke inhalation will differ in severity depending on factors like the amount of smoke you inhaled, the length of time you were exposed to it, your health at the time of exposure, and your age. Other factors include the chemicals that are in the smoke that you are breathing.
By itself, wildfire smoke already contains carbon monoxide. This gas can be deadly when breathed in high doses, but it is colorless and odorless, so it is virtually impossible to notice without carbon monoxide detector. If you are around smoke, though, you can be sure you are near this toxic gas.
Long-term exposure to carbon monoxide can manifest in symptoms such as headaches, nausea, dizziness, and problems focusing.
Can You Sue for Injuries from a Wildfire?
We know you can’t sue Mother Nature for damages caused by lightning and earthquakes, but what if the fire was preventable? The scary fact is that almost 95% of California’s devastating wildfires were caused by humans.
Historically, these fires have begun through negligence, accidents, and purposeful acts. A spark caused by a flat tire created one. An improperly installed fence used to contain livestock started another. Multiple were caused by downed powerlines, and far too many were the tragic product of arson.
Even the tiniest little spark can be the catalyst for an uncontainable inferno in the right circumstances. And California’s hot, dry weather is the perfect setting for fire to rage out of control. The often strong and unpredictable gusts of winds push the flames away from containment and the trees, dry from long periods of drought, go up in fiery blazes like paper and spread the fire even further.
Damages, injuries, and wrongful deaths that occurred because of human error – either purposeful or accidental – may be compensated for in certain circumstances. The person or entity that started the fire will have a lot of people to be accountable to, and in one headlining case, an infamous arsonist who sent a text message threatening a volunteer fire chief was held on $1 million bond and is facing life in prison.
When it comes to playing with fire, you never know who is going to get burned. When it’s your fault, it will eventually come back to burn you.
Negligence claims are common civil suits brought on by victims of wildfires caused by accidental cases. Even though it may have been an accident, it was still preventable and the person who caused it is responsible for damages.
Arson, however, is a criminal situation and therefore tried through a criminal prosecutor.
When the dust settles after a large wildfire, there are usually hundreds or even thousands of victims going through their property damage, scouring their insurance policies, and assessing their injuries. If you were one of those who were injured because of a California wildfire, you don’t have to face the destruction alone.
Our lawyers at Hershey Law care about you and the devastation you have gone through. We want to help you understand your rights and get compensation for your damages. No matter what your insurance company told you, always check with a knowledgeable attorney before you throw in the towel and go it alone. Call or contact us today for your free consultation.